Tony Blair and George Bush may have come to the conclusion -- albeit belated -- that solving the Middle East conflict is central to their war against terrorism. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however shows no signs of playing along. He is even refusing to talk to Yasser Arafat or to let Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres see the PLO leader. It remains to be seen how long he can adopt a hard-line approach while both Bush and Blair signal an increasing willingness to consider the long-disputed possibility of a Palestine state. Only yesterday it was revealed that Blair had invited Arafat to London tomorrow to discuss ways to reinvigorate the peace process.
In a prime-time press conference last Thursday, President Bush said: 'I believe there ought to be a Palestinian state ... so long as the Palestinian state recognises the right of Israel to exist and will treat Israel with respect.'
Although the US has not presented its emerging proposals to Israel nor the Palestinians, the plan has been stated to affirm the Palestinians' right to a viable state -- with Jerusalem as a shared capital. The plan would also include the principle of trading land for peace and the fulfilment of UN resolutions 242 and 338, which call for an Israeli withdrawal from lands it occupied in the 1967 war.
Bush's remarks coincided with a statement by Blair, during his visit to Cairo, in which he stressed that solving the Palestinian cause is not only important to the Middle East, but will help achieve stability all over the world.
Israeli cabinet minister Danny Naveh, who speaks for the government, said last week that Israel had been kept in the dark about a peace plan. ''I have to say that what I hear about what's being said by the American gov ernment these days is a programme that Israel cannot accept,' Naveh told Israeli radio.
Naveh said Israel staunchly opposes ''ideas which include at their core the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital'.
As Israeli-Palestinian fighting continues, Sharon abhors any new initiatives, analysts say, especially ones that foresee Israel sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
The Bush administration planned to unveil a series of diplomatic initiatives for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in September, during the UN General Assembly. However, that plan was shelved in light of the attacks on the US.
On October 2 Bush used somewhat vaguer language, saying: ''the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected'.
Such public support for a Palestinian state from a Republican a dministration had not been seen before, and the move gave Sharon great cause for alarm. It appeared that, after a year of intense Middle East violence which has left at least 624 Palestinians and 125 Israelis dead, Israel's closest ally was on the point of exchanging that friendship for an alliance with the world's Arab states, and more precisely with the Palestinian people.
Israeli analyst Joseph Alpher says Sharon and his right-wing partners in the national unity government will have difficulty swallowing Bush's latest initiative.
In Sharon's eyes, the Palestinians haven't made enough of an effort to stop terrorism. 'He sees Bush and Blair just playing up to Arafat,'' Alpher says. Sharon's underlying panic has already manifested itself in a bitterly worded speech in which he accused the US of appeasing Arab countries.
He warned that Israel would not be another Czech oslovakia -- a reference to the way European powers appeased Germany by allowing her to annex the partly ethnic-German Sudetenland in the run-up to the second world war.
In response to growing public concern, thousands of Israelis have been visiting gas-mask distribution centres. Israelis have reason to be concerned for their safety, because for many Israel and the US are virtually one and the same state.
Since the campaign against terror was launched, Israel has been flexing its muscles and trying hard to give the impression that it is involved, although it has not been invited to participate.
'Sharon has boasted that Israel is supplying the Americans with invaluable intel ligence information, while his spokesman has added that they are also providing logistical support,' Israeli commentator Yoel Marcus has stated.
But, as it did during the the Gulf war in January 1991 when the first of several Iraqi Scud missiles landed in Tel Aviv, the US has warned Israel once again not to retaliate. Israel has been instructed to sit on the sidelines again, and Sharon has been told to avoid rash actions, lower the volume of the conflict, and embark on a dialogue with the Palestinians.
For now, the role of the Palestinians in the war against terror is to maintain calm in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat expressed his satisfaction regarding the statements of President Bush on a Palestinian state. He said: ''We oppose terrorism because we have a just cause, and because we remain the victims of the ugliest form of terrorism: the occupation.''
An opinion poll on Arab-American relations by the Palestinian university of Bir Zeit reflected a lack of faith in Israel's intentions. Its conclusions showed that 90% believe Sharon's government is not serious in reaching a peace agreement that can end the Palestine-Israeli conflict. Those polled said they viewed the US bias in favour of Israel as a cause of hostile feelings towards the US.
Almost 50% of those polled in the West Bank have relatives who live in America.
Many Palestinian leaders have called on the US and Europe to match their words on the creation of a Palestinian state with action. 'We don't need photo opportunities or declarations that are not implemented,' said senior official Yasser Abed Rabbo.
'This is the litmus test,' said Ziad Abu Amar, a member of the Palestinian Legis lative Council. ''Those leaders who say they are fighting terror have to intervene in a forceful fashion and make Sharon realise that he is no longer the only player on the field. He may have to bow down a little now as he no longer feels certain of US support.''