Assad calls Blair conference irrelevant (GUARDIAN UK) Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor 12/18/02)
GUARDIAN UK Articles-Index-Top
The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, dismissed as irrelevant Tony
Blair´s planned Middle East peace conference yesterday less than 24
hours after Downing Street announced it.
He predicted that the conference, to be held in Britain next month,
will fail because it does not address the prime cause of the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Instead, he said it concentrates on the Israeli-US attempt to
undermine the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
"The result will be more turbulence and disruption in the Middle
East," he said. "People are trying to deal with the symptoms rather
than the causes. This is what I call the style of the ostrich that
sticks its head in the sand."
The conference will deal exclusively with reform of the Palestinian
economy and political structures. Israel will not be attending.
Mr Assad, who saw the Queen at Buckingham Palace yesterday, the first
Syrian leader to do so, reiterated his defence of Palestinian suicide
bombers. He said that "suicide" and "bombers" should be separated.
Europeans did not condemn suicides as such, he said: it was the bombs
they objected to.
"The Israelis have actual bombs which they put on planes and missiles
and drop them on Palestinians. The Palestinians do not have F-16s or
rockets, so they have to go by themselves and kill Israelis," Mr
Assad said. "If you want to condemn the bomb, you have condemn both
Mr Assad´s dismissal of the conference came the day after he and Mr
Blair held a joint press conference at Downing Street in which they
downplayed their differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
and the Iraqi crisis.
Mr Arafat has agreed to send senior Palestinian representatives to
the British conference but there is suspicion among some Palestinians
about its purpose.
The Israeli government too expressed disquiet about the conference
being held in the run-up to the Israeli election at the end of next
An Israeli government official questioned the value of a conference
to which Israel had not been or taken into consideration, or which
could have been postponed until after the Israeli election.
"It could have been done with more thought," the official said.
Mr Assad, speaking at a sem inar at London´s Royal Institute of
International Affairs, said that the issue of Middle East peace and
Palestinian reform were unrelated. Syria would support reform to end
corruption but the west´s idea of Palestinian reform has nothing to
do with this.
The west´s idea of reform, he said, was whether or not Mr Arafat had
a mandate. Mr Assad said that whenever he spoke to European officials
and asked for an alternative to Mr Arafat, they had no answers.
A Foreign Office source defended the conference yesterday: "I would
point out that Arafat welcomed it. It is not entirely true to say
that reform is an Israeli-US agenda. Palestinians have been pursuing
it for some time. It is a chance for Palestinians to brief us rather
than us setting the agenda." (Guardian Unlimited © Guardian
Newspapers Limited 2002 12/18/02)
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