With UK, rocky rapport had a happy ending


The relationship between Ariel Sharon and British Foreign Office mandarins could hardly have got off to a worse start.

Just one year into his premiership, a diplomatic storm erupted when a Whitehall official was reported in the Guardian as describing him as “the cancer at the centre of the Middle East crisis”.

While a Foreign Office spokesman rushed to dissociate itself from the comment, he did not deny that the comments were genuine.

The Israeli Embassy reacted with fury, making clear that it was dismayed and expecting the matter to be dealt with “in an appropriately firm matter”.

Sharon’s rise to power, in 2001, was greeted with some concern both in London and Washington.

He carried with him the shadow of the 1982 Lebanon War and, in particular, the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by a Christian militia.

An Israeli investigation had found that Israeli soldiers, aware that a massacre was in progress, had failed to take steps to stop it. Sharon, perhaps Israel’s most celebrated war hero and then Defence Minister, was forced to resign.

The killings had shocked British leaders and were described by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a firm friend of Israel, as an act of “sheer barbarism”.

In 2003, Sharon, by then premier, made a major trip to London. He met his opposite number Tony Blair and the then-foreign secretary Jack Straw, who praised him for the work he had done on the peace process.

Such positive exchanges, however, could not paper over a growing number of disagreements between the two countries. Britain angered Sharon by rolling out the red carpet for the then Syrian President Bashir Assad, who was seen by Israel and much of the West as a sponsor of terrorism.

Blair snubbed Israel’s then-foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, instead, hosted the leader of Israel’s Labour Party, Amram Mitzna, who was running against Sharon in the Israeli elections.

Perhaps more seriously, London convened a conference on Palestinian reform without inviting Israel. In reaction, Sharon refused to allow Palestinian delegates to travel to London.

Sharon had aimed to persuade the UK to cut its ties with PLO leader Yassir Arafat, whom he said was an obstacle to peace. However, his appeal was rebuffed. Sharon’s long-held policy to expand the settlements was also a bone of contention with the UK. However, in 2004 there was delight when he orchestrated Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza.

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