A visit on 2 March by the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, will soon be over-shadowed by the arrival of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmad Quraya, for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

However, according to Richard Burden, the Labour chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party group of MPs, hopes of a breakthrough are slight.

"I'm sceptical about whether this is a real offer, rather than a way of sending the international community up a blind alley," he said. "It could just be Sharon's way of unilaterally imposing an effective annexation of West Bank land, demarcated by the wall."

Burden told Aljazeera.net that the diplomatic activity in London should be weighed against reports of more olive groves being uprooted in Netzarim Junction and the shooting of another Palestinian child, Yusuf Bashir, during a house eviction in Gaza.

"This was a family that was fully committed to dialogue and peace with Israel," he said in exasperation. "When you hear things like that, you realise that it is time the international community said that peace will not come until things change on the ground."

Road map

In London though, the Whitehall mandarins have been focused on loftier matters.

Ever since Tony Blair won backbench support for the war in Iraq by arguing that the road to Middle East peace ran through Baghdad, London has championed the US-formulated road map to peace.

"Britain is completely irrelevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No one in Israel cares a damn what the British think or do"

Uri Avnery,
Gush Shalom Peace Movement

When it was announced, Foreign Office officials hailed it as a tangible concession wrested from the US, justifying the UK's support of the war in Iraq.

Yet under its terms, all settlements and "outposts" built since March 2001 should have been dismantled by now. More than 100 fall into this category but none has yet been taken down.

Attacks

Israel's position, supported by Washington, is that it is not obliged to fulfil its responsibilities until the Palestinian Authority takes measures to stop attacks by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

However, figures in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz this week show that Tel Aviv has done more than just ignore its obligations. In 2003, it actually increased the building of new settlement constructions in the occupied territories by 35%.

As a result, London's diplomatic stock is falling with every Israeli snub to world opinion, and every US snub to British protests about it.

In theory, the UK is trying to position itself at the heart of Middle East diplomatic efforts. In practice, despite its reputation as an "Arabist" redoubt, the Foreign Office appears to be trailing forlornly after Tel Aviv with pleas for moderation.

Uri Avnery, an Israeli political analyst and the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, is one of those who believe that the UK is now an inconsequential player in the Middle East.

UK irrelevant?

"Britain is completely irrelevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he told Aljazeera.net. "No one in Israel cares a damn what the British think or do."

"The road map was always just a piece of paper, a propaganda spin and a photo opportunity. No one in Israel took it seriously."

Israel has yet to dismantle any
settlements as per the road map

Some Israeli commentators have linked Sharon's proposal to his domestic problems, but Avnery argues that the measures now being proposed conform to his long-term plans.

"Sharon is prepared to give up the Gaza Strip because it is populated by 1.25 million Palestinians and 7000 Israeli settlers," he said. "Every Israeli would be happy for us to leave but in return, Sharon wants the US administration to agree to an Israeli annexation of about 55% of the West Bank."

"The remainder - 10% of what was originally Palestine - would be divided into eight, 10 or 12 small enclaves cut off from each other. It is logical from Mr Sharon's point of view. It all comes to the same. But if there is no pressure from the US, I don't see him even leaving Gaza."

Concerns

Richard Burden defended the UK's diplomatic engagement with Tel Aviv over the implementation of the plan.

"The fact is that when the PM of Israel is talking about withdrawing from anywhere, it is right that there should be interest," he said. "But Europe can do certain things as Europe, and Britain can play its part.

"For example, it can remind Tel Aviv that the EU-Israel association agreement which gives it a right to preferential trade agreement also obliges it to uphold international law and respect human rights.

Ariel Sharon is in no rush to 
remove any settlements

"The EU can very legitimately say that the agreement cannot operate, and should be suspended, unless both responsibilities and rights are accepted together."

For the moment though, British concerns about the Gaza Strip seem to be centred on Sharon's plan, specifically on Tel Aviv's refusal to rule out moving the 7000 settlers there to the West Bank.

Silvan Shalom pointedly refused to discuss the matter at his London press conference with the foreign secretary, Jack Straw.

Stumbling blocks

Other concerns may arise if Israel tries to force the international community to pay for the removal of its settlers, if it leaves some settlements in the north of the Strip, if it tries to maintain control of the border with Egypt in Rafah, or if the army stays behind after the settlers have left.

No Israeli decision is expected until after a meeting between Ariel Sharon and President Bush in Washington at the end of March or beginning of April.

A referendum could then take place, followed by a vote in the Knesset and a cabinet meeting in July.

In the meantime, the grey men in Whitehall will continue dancing their diplomatic shuffle and the Palestinian children of Gaza will continue paying the price.