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Gordon Brown, left, the British prime minister, held talks this month with Ehud Olmert, his Israeli counterpart, on the peace process.
Oli Scarff Staff
Gordon Brown, left, the British prime minister, held talks this month with Ehud Olmert, his Israeli counterpart, on the peace process.

Brown leans on Israel in attempt to foster peace

Sensing a window of opportunity about to close, Britain sets the stage for the US to usher in an accord before Israeli elections in February.

LONDON // Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, appears to be paving the way for a fresh, Anglo-American peace initiative in the Middle East in the new year. Diplomats in London said there were clear signs that Mr Brown was preparing the ground for Barack Obama to spearhead a bid for an Israeli-Palestinian accord soon after his inauguration as US president on Jan 20. In recent weeks, Mr Brown has markedly toughened his public pronouncements over continued Israeli expansion in the occupied West Bank and called for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza. He has also met this month both Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Salam Fayyad, his Palestinian equivalent, while, simultaneously, instituting a string of small but significant measures to increase pressure on Israel. According to a "well-informed Washington source" quoted by The Times newspaper, Mr Brown's efforts are being synchronised with Mr Obama's advisers. The US president-elect has already stated his determination to tackle the Middle East impasse in 2009 and is said to be keen to see if progress can be made with Mr Olmert in the weeks before the inauguration in Washington. A diplomatic source in London said yesterday: "Time is of the essence. Mr Olmert will leave office after the elections in February. Both the [UK] prime minister and Mr Obama know that, after the election, their job will become immeasurably harder if Benjamin Netanyahu gets in. "There are limits, of course, to what the prime minister can achieve, but it appears he is sending a message to Israel that there could be real consequences unless it compromises. Even so, the big moves will have to come from Mr Obama when he takes office." Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party is already opposed to a Palestinian state, and there have been worrying signs recently of a grass-roots movement to push the party even further to the right. For his part, Mr Brown has made clear his commitment to a two-state solution and has also very publicly stepped up the pressure on Israel to stop its expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. There have also been several other moves recently by the UK government that Israeli officials have described as "unfriendly" but which diplomats in London regard as an accelerating drive to try to bring the two sides together. This week, for instance, British customs officials began random searches of Israeli goods coming into the country to ensure that they actually came from inside Israel, which are tariff free within the EU, and not from settlements, which are not. Additionally, the United Kingdom led an unsuccessful bid within the EU this month to tie a proposed upgrade of Israel's political links with the union to progress in talks with the Palestinians. There will also be fresh guidance issued by the UK's foreign office next month effectively warning British citizens not to buy property in West Bank settlements or in east Jerusalem. In a letter this month to Mr Fayyad, Mr Brown said he shared the Palestinian leader's "frustration" over the building of settlements, which has "continued and accelerated since the Annapolis process", which was supposed to stop it. "The UK is now looking at what effective action we can take to discourage settlement expansion," Mr Brown wrote. "Given our clear position on settlements, it follows that we would not want any British national to purchase property inside an illegal settlement. We are now looking at whether there are effective ways in which we can discourage them from so doing." An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman told The Jerusalem Post this week: "This is obviously unacceptable to us. We think it is unnecessary and not something positive, but we have to pick our battles and are not going to go on the offensive about everything." The newspaper added: "Another government official said that this type of formal advisory issued by the British government can only add ammunition to those in Britain interested in de-legitimising Israel." In fact, the whole issue of Britons buying property in the occupied areas is a fairly moot one. Although there are companies in London and Manchester that advertise them, only a handful are thought to have been sold. Mr Brown has stated he is "working hard to ensure that progress is possible during 2009" in the Middle East and has backed the call by 22 Arab states, including the UAE, for Mr Obama to make the achievement of a comprehensive plan a priority of his presidency. "There has been a tougher attitude towards Israel emerging in London recently," one diplomat said. "But it is meant to be constructive, not destructive. Both Washington and London know that there has to be progress on the settlements issue for things to move forward." Bill Rammell, the UK's new minister with responsibility for the Middle East, completed a three-day mission to Israel on Monday. Significantly, perhaps, his most publicised visit was to a hotel straddling Israel's security barrier outside east Jerusalem, which is now used as a security post by Israeli soldiers. Accompanied by a BBC crew, the minister highlighted the fact that the Cliff Hotel's Palestinian owner has now been declared an "absentee landlord" even though he lives only a few hundred metres away and cannot physically get to his hotel's front door because the Israelis will not issue him with the necessary pass. Mr Rammell also visited Hebron and, after meeting the mayor and governor, repeated the UK call for the Israeli withdrawal from settlements for peace to be achieved. dsapsted@thenational.ae

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