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Sharon Visits Britain to Improve Ties, Discuss Peace Process - 2003-07-13

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is visiting London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair aimed at thawing relations with Britain and moving the international road map for peace forward.

It has been more than a year since Ariel Sharon and Tony Blair last met, and relations between their two countries have soured over that time.

In January, Mr. Blair arranged talks with leading Palestinians in London focusing on reforms. Israel was not invited. The conference eventually had to use a video link-up, because Mr. Sharon refused to let local Palestinian delegates attend.

Then, shortly before the Iraqi war, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw rankled Israel, suggesting that the international community was acting with double standards by using force to implement U.N. resolutions on Baghdad, while Israel could ignore international mandates.

But now it appears both sides want to smooth out their differences. Mr. Sharon will get the red carpet treatment Monday when he dines with Mr. Blair at Ten Downing Street. He will also hold discussions with the foreign secretary, and will meet with leaders of Britain's Jewish community.

Mr. Sharon sees Britain as an important voice in Europe, and he is trying to persuade members of the European Union to break all contacts with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. The Israeli leader accuses Mr. Arafat of undermining the peace efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

For his part, Mr. Blair hopes to gain involvement in the slow and at times halting "road map" for peace. The British leader is also expected to press his Israeli counterpart to release more Palestinian prisoners as a sign of good faith.

But Mr. Blair is not in the strong position he was a year ago. Critics continue to question why he went to war in Iraq, and polls show is position weakened in the view of the British public.

Over the next few days, smiles and decorum will dominate the Anglo-Israeli talks in London. But behind closed doors, the discussions - as diplomats put it - will be "strong and frank."