By Phil Reeves and Donald Macintyre
The Independent (London, England)
TONY BLAIR intervened yesterday to save a crucial mission to Israel by his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, from being scuttled in a diplomatic storm whipped up by Israeli politicians alarmed over Britain's wary courtship of Iran.
Hours before Mr Straw touched down in Tel Aviv, plans for his visit were in chaos. An angry Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, had cancelled their meeting; the British ambassador, Sherard Cowper- Coles, had been given an official dressing down; and Mr Straw's counterpart, Shimon Peres, had called off an official dinner in his honour.
The mission was rescued by a 15-minute telephone conversation between Mr Blair and Mr Sharon, whom he persuaded to reverse his plans and see the Foreign Secretary.
Ostensibly, Israel's ire was over an article by Mr Straw in the Iranian press in which he said that "one of the factors that breeds terrorism" in the Middle East is "anger ... at events over the years in Palestine".
Although these views are widely supported within the international community, Israeli officials seized on them as evidence that Britain was blaming Israel for Palestinian violence. One, Raanan Gissin, described Mr Straw's words as "bordering on anti- Semitism".
On meeting Mr Sharon at his office in the Defence Ministry last night Mr Straw sidestepped questions about whether he would apologise to the Israeli people. The two men shook hands for the cameras before starting an 80-minute meeting which a Foriegn Office source described afterwards as "constructive and convivial".
Earlier, Downing Street described the telephone conversation between the two premiers as "amicable" - which cannot have pleased Mr Straw, given the abuse to which he had been subjected. But Mr Blair clearly saw the need to rescue the mission as more important than a diplomatic spat.
This was echoed by Mr Straw during his visit to Tehran. He said there was a "bigger picture" than the fracas, adding that he understood Israel's feelings at the "consequences of brutal terrorism and their sensitivities about other nations in the region".
Britain was "helping to develop a broad-based international consensus following the atrocities of 11 September, which is of importance to the whole of this region, as it is to world peace", he said.
An underlying cause for the furore was Israel's desire to draw attention to its deep trepidation about the shifts in the Middle East's geopolitical landscape brought about by the terror attacks on America. Mr Straw's trip to Iran, the first by a British foreign secretary since the 1979 Islamic revolution, caused particular anxiety in Israel. …