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Sharon, Blair mend fences

Handshake: Talks between the two leaders were expected to be cordial.
Handshake: Talks between the two leaders were expected to be cordial.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met British PM Tony Blair for talks over dinner in Downing Street in a visit intended to repair relations between the two governments following strains in recent months.

The meeting was designed to back the road map to peace and build a consensus on the steps forward in the region -- but the fence-mending came as the controversy continued over Tony Blair's handling of intelligence on Iraqi weapons.

CNN's Robin Oakley said Sharon was pressing Blair to break off contacts with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, a message the Israel leader is directing to leaders of all the EU nations.

Blair was urging Sharon to release more Palestinian prisoners and work faster at dismantling Israeli settler outposts on the West Bank.

Sharon would also ask Blair to do more to stop funding going to terrorist groups like Hamas under the guise of charity collections, Oakley said.

Relations between Britain and Israel were dented when Britain joined the EU in condemning Israeli damage to the Palestinian infrastructure and imposing trade restrictions on goods from Israeli settlement areas.

In January, Britain did not invite Israeli representatives to a London conference on proposed Palestinian reforms. Israel then blocked Palestinian leaders from traveling to the event, forcing meetings to be conducted by videophone.

Sharon was certain not to get the answer he wished from Blair on Arafat. During talks Monday morning in London with the Israeli PM, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made clear that the British government would continue dealing with Arafat "as we see fit," British officials told the UK's Press Association.

"The Foreign Secretary made clear our position, as with the rest of the EU, is that Arafat is the democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority and we will continue to have dealings with him as we see fit," one official told PA.

Sharon's government wants European leaders finally to cut their ties with Arafat. It blames him for creating stumbling blocks on the road map to Mideast peace, saying he does not do enough to stop terrorist attacks by Palestinian militant groups and undercuts the leadership of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen).

Although Arafat has been partly sidelined since Abbas became premier in April, he retains considerable powers.

Sharon was praised for his work on the Mideast peace process as he opened talks with Straw.

Straw told Sharon ahead of their meeting: "We know the huge amount of work you have been doing to help, in very great difficulties, the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians and we would like to commend you for that," Reuters reported.

CNN's Oakley said that relations between Britain and Israel remain warm. He said Sharon views Blair and Britain as a bridgehead into Europe, Israel seeing most EU leaders as having a pro-Palestinian bias.

Zvi Shtauber, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, told CNN Israel was looking for a new beginning in Europe after earlier disagreements.

"Most Israelis feel -- rightly or wrongly -- that the EU does not treat them fairly," Shtauber said.

Israelis are not comfortable with Europe in general. But they are happier about Blair.

"Tony Blair is considered as a friend of Israel. He has shown it. He is a traditional friend of Israel," Shtauber said.

The EU is one of the four sponsors of the road map along with the United States, the United Nations and Russia.

The road map proposes steps by both sides toward ending the conflict and establishing an independent Palestinian state peacefully existing side by side with Israel by 2005.

CNN correspondents Matthew Chance and Robin Oakley and Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.

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