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Blair challenges Netanyahu on settlement construction

Benjamin Netanyahu and Tony Blair November 13, 1997
Web posted at: 9:20 p.m. EST (0220 GMT)

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LONDON (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he was concerned about the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and on the need to restart Mideast peace negotiations.

Although the talks were described by Blair's office only as "friendly and constructive," there were indications that Netanyahu's hard-line stance was challenged in the meeting with Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

And it is expected that they will be challenged again during Netanyahu's meeting Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has urged Israel in the past to stop building settlements. But Netanyahu is undeterred by the criticism.

In a speech to the British-Israeli Parliamentary Group Thursday, he ruled out a freeze on new settlements, saying it "is not realistic and is not warranted."

He said the Oslo agreements place no limits on building settlements and argued that they are only an issue because some people think Israel should not be there in the first place.

As for peace, he said, "I think there are a variety of ideas on how to move the peace process forward, and those I'll present in my talks with Mrs. Albright."

While refusing to elaborate, he did say that Israel and Palestinians should build on the progress made in talks earlier this month in Washington.

Netanyahu: Russia helping Iran with missiles

In a speech Thursday he also said the opening of "safe passage" routes between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was a "positive element" in Israel's relations with the Palestinians.

But Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has gone so far as to say that the talks in Washington made no real progress.

What the Palestinians want is a halt to Israeli settlements and the handover of the West Bank to full Palestinian control. And on those issues, Israel has not budged.

During an address to the Britain's House of Commons, Netanyahu said that Russia is still passing ballistic missile technology to Iran and that the Iranians are only a year away from acquiring long-range nuclear missile capability.

"If the supply of Russian technology is not stopped, then within a year Iran would become self-sufficient and would be able to create those missiles on its own," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu said the flow of Russian technology was continuing even after he made a direct appeal to President Boris Yeltsin.

Some British Jews shun Netanyahu

Netanyahu arrived to find himself under indirect, posthumous attack from Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, an opponent of the Israeli leader's hard-line stance on the Palestinian issue.

Berlin died last week, but The Guardian newspaper printed his deathbed appeal in which he said that partitioning Israel would be "the only correct solution" for the Middle East.

"Ideally, what we are calling for is a relationship of good neighbors, but given the number of bigoted terrorist chauvinists on both sides, this is impracticable. The solution must lie somewhat along the lines of reluctant toleration," Berlin said.

It was also reported that some leaders in Britain's Jewish community stayed away from a reception for Netanyahu to express disagreement with his policies.

"The British tendency has always been 'Let's talk about this quietly ... it's not good to air these things in public,'" says Ned Temko, editor of the Jewish Chronicle. "I think that's changing, and I think that's a measure of the depth of feeling."

"The British feel, and quite rightly, that Netanyahu's coming here to soft-soap them," says Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics. "He's coming here to smile and say, 'Yes, we are in favor of peace.' You must understand, we (the British) have a terrorism problem."

Correspondent Richard Blystone and Reuters contributed to this report.

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