LIVID SHARON SNUBS STRAW; Israeli PM Cancels Talks over Foreign Secretary's Remarks on Palestinians

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Byline: SAM KILEY;PATRICK HENNESSY

JACK STRAW was plunged into a fullscale diplomatic row on his trip to the Middle East today after he was snubbed by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr Sharon pulled out of a planned meeting with the Foreign Secretary after he enraged Israelis by claiming that the treatment of Palestinians bred anger in the region and by referring to the unrecognised state of "Palestine" instead of saying "the Palestinian territories".

However, Mr Straw was unrepentant today - claiming that he had made a "statement of the obvious" and refused to apologise to the Israelis.

He insisted that Mr Sharon's government should look at the "bigger picture" - the need to hold talks with Muslim countries such as Iran to help build a worldwide coalition against terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.

The row threatened to overshadow the Foreign Secretary's landmark talks in Tehran today, the centrepiece of the first visit to Iran by a leading British politician since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Mr Straw is travelling to Israel later today where he was supposed to hold talks with Mr Sharon. Mr Straw's senior aides today admitted these had been "in the programme" but were now off, and that the most senior politician he would see would be his opposite number, Shimon Peres, over dinner. Mr Straw refused to back down from his comments and told reporters: "My visit here was always going to be sensitive for some people but there is a bigger picture which is to build up an international consensus against the terrorist atrocities of 11 September." His remarks, which Israeli politicians claimed blamed their country for contributing to the rise in Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, were a "statement of the obvious", the Foreign Secretary added.

His aides went still further and said there was no question of Mr Straw making an apology to the Israelis. It was "very important" to make sure countries like Iran were on board, they added. They rigorously defended the strategy of holding talks with the Iranian government - despite the country's-support for Hezbollah terrorists who have targeted Israel. A senior colleague of the Foreign Secretary said: "Iran knows more than anybody about the danger of the Taliban." Yesterday, Israel's foreign ministry director general Avi Gil conveyed his country's concern to the British ambassador to Israel, Sherard Cowper-Cales. Israel's transport minister Efraim Sneh, a member of the Israeli Labour Party, accused Straw of "obscenity". He said: "The journey of that foreign minister who made these statements and is making the trip with the concurrence of the United States, to Tehran, the capital of Iran, is a stab in the back for Israel."

The Israeli foreign ministry said: "This approach could lead to an escalation of terrorism ...

especially since the remarks were published in Iran, a country that supports terrorism, has an official policy calling for the destruction of Israel and actively aids terrorist elements."

Mr Sharon's refusal to see Mr Straw has further isolated the Jewish state which has been out of step with Western efforts to renew the peace process with the Palestinians.

Speaking after talks lasting an hour and a quarter with his Iranian opposite number, Kamal Kaharrazi, in Tehran, the Foreign Secretary again defended his strategy of holding talks with the region's Muslim states as part of the drive against terrorism. …