Israel asks Solana to boycott Arafat


EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has arrived in the Middle East for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Prime Minister Sharon ordered his cabinet to stay silent on matters relating to Iraq.

In his first meeting, Israeli defence minister Mr Binyamin Ben Eliezer asked Mr Solana and other European leaders to boycott Palestinian leader Mr Yasser Arafat.

"European officials' contacts with Arafat and their messages of sympathy toward him are a waste of time," said the Labour party hawk in talks. But Mr Solana, intends to keep his scheduled meeting with the Palestinian leader in Ramallah on tomorrow.

"This European policy does not help encourage moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority, inasmuch as Arafat wants the status quo to continue," Mr Ben Eliezer said.

Yesterday, a meeting of EU defence ministers in Crete was told by Mr Solana that the Palestinians were without an effective government.

"Now there is no government, because all the crises have prevented compliance with resolutions of the legislative assembly," he said.

"The sooner they have a functional government which is a real government in the sense that everybody has responsibilities, that these responsibilities are clear," the better, he said.

He said creating a prime minister's post was crucial "because he will be the person who will be accountable vis-a-vis the legislative assembly".

After Israel's 10-day siege of Arafat's base last month, his Fatah faction, which dominates the Palestinian parliament, said they backed his refusal to name a premier, saying it was a ploy by Israel and the United States to impose their vision of Palestinian reform.

Mr Solana will also travel to Jordan and Egypt as part of hisfour-day trip.

Israel and the United States want to see Mr Arafat sidelined or reduced to a purely ceremonial role as Palestinian leader. Israel accuses him of actively encouraging "terrorism," while the US says he has done too little to combat anti-Israeli attacks.

Mr Solana is also due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharonon Monday.

In a sign of solidarity with his main military and financial backer, Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon told his cabinet today not to make public comments about Iraq at the request of Washington, public radio reports.

At the opening of the ministerial meeting, Mr Sharon explained the US said any comments could cause problems while it gears up for strikes againstPresident Saddam Hussein.

Mr Ben Eliezer recently said the US could launch an offensive against Iraq by the end of November and that Israel was ready to "face any eventuality."

Mr Sharon is to visit Washington on October 16th, when US President George W Bush is expected to ask him to tone down Israel's tough talk against Iraq to try to calm regional tensions.