Hint of Rift between Blair and US over Middle East; POLITICS: Straw Refuses to Endorse Bush's Demand That Arafat Must Go
Byline: GAVIN CORDON
TONY Blair was last night flying out for the G8 summit in Canada amid signs of a rift opening up with the United States over President George Bush's Middle East peace initiative. Both Mr Blair's official spokesman and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw refused to endorse Mr Bush's demands for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to be replaced by a new leadership.
In the Commons, Mr Straw insisted it was up to the Palestinian people to choose their own leaders - a point underlined by Mr Blair's spokesman in briefings to journalists.
The Foreign Secretary told MPs that if Mr Arafat was re-elected in fresh elections, Britain would continue to work with him.
``We deal with leaders who are elected - and in the case of dictatorial regimes, those who are not elected, - as we find them,'' he said.
``If President Arafat were re-elected by the Palestinian Authority we would deal with him.''
Mr Straw and Downing Street sought to play down differences with the Americans, welcoming the broad thrust of President Bush's strategy setting out a timetable for Palestinian statehood within three years.
Mr Blair's official spokesman said that because the two governments were not using ``precisely the same language'', it did not mean that Britain did not welcome Mr Bush's initiative.
``The British Government uses its words. The American administration uses its words,'' the spokesman said.
On the flight out to Canada, Mr Blair also sought to smooth over the differences in comments to travelling journalists, criticising the failure of the Palestinian negotiating stance.
``All I'm saying is that I don't think this process has been properly negotiated on the Palestinian side up to now,'' he said.
``If we want to get agreement it's got to be properly negotiated. …