Miliband in Mid-East diplomacy drive

By Bernard Josephs and Anshel Pfeffer, November 6, 2008

Talks with Syria and the Palestinian Authority will be high on the agenda during Foreign Secretary David Miliband's visit to Israel in 10 days' time. Mr Miliband will be reporting to his Israeli counterparts on his meeting last week with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

Mr Miliband will be travelling to Israel during its election season, and in addition to meeting outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, he will also be sounding out Defence Minister Ehud Barak of Labour and Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu.

"It is a chance to hear at first-hand what their policy will be if elected and underline some of the UK's concerns," a Foreign Office official said.

Prime Minister Olmert's announcement that the indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria would go on was greeted with satisfaction in London, but caused an uproar among right-wing opposition parties in Israel.

The FCO has identified an opportunity over the next few months, before the new Obama administration gets into its stride, for Britain to take a more central diplomatic role in the Middle East, partnering the US when a new Secretary of State is appointed.

Mr Miliband intends, therefore, to attempt to urge Israel's leaders to continue talks with Syria and the Palestinian Authority, despite the elections.

In London on Tuesday, Mr Miliband warned that the expansion of Israeli settlements and the threat of Palestinian extremism have combined with growing public scepticism to push to the brink hopes for a two-state Middle East solution.

Addressing Labour Friends of Israel's annual luncheon, a sombre Mr Miliband said that hopes for such a solution were shared by world leaders "but our efforts to achieve it are not succeeding". In some quarters, he said, there was even talk of replacing Israel and Palestine with a bi-national state.

"Do not be fooled, as President Peres has said, if Israel loses its Jewish majority it will cease to be a Jewish state. If it tries to maintain its Jewish character by force it will no longer be democratic. The stakes could not be higher."

Mr Miliband noted that many Israelis felt under siege and were facing attacks from Gaza and Lebanon, despite having withdrawn from both territories. They saw the "never ending peace process as an endless disenchantment".

Meanwhile, Palestinians were "feeling cheated and abused and that the grandiose peace promise is a screen to cover continued settlement expansion, house demolition, land confiscation and the daily indignities of occupation". Both sides, he said, were tiring of the conflict "but they are also tiring faster of efforts to resolve it, a condition that is far worse".

Last updated: 12:56pm, November 6 2008