Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Monday welcomed a proposal by visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair to hold high-level Mideast talks in London, a Palestinian Cabinet minister said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted Blair's offer, making it likely that such talks could take place early next month. The format still needs to be worked out.Arafat's advisers said earlier Monday that the Palestinian leader would only attend once the United States has gone public with its still unofficial proposal that Israel withdraw from 13.1 percent of the West Bank in several stages. Israel would have to accept the American offer, the advisers said.
However, the Palestinians appeared to be softening their position after a Blair-Arafat meeting Monday in Gaza City. Asked about Arafat's position, Palestinian Cabinet minister Hanan Ashrawi said: "He welcomed the idea, but we told Prime Minister Blair that it should be a meeting that is prepared for and not another attempt by Israel to buy time."
In recent months, Arafat has steadfastly refused to meet with Netanyahu, saying he did not want to create a false impression of progress at a time when Israel is not ready to make concessions.
Israel has signaled some flexibility on the withdrawal, with an Israeli official saying Monday that Netanyahu was considering a pullback from 11 percent of the West Bank, up from 9 percent.
In talks with Netanyahu on Sunday, Blair proposed holding meetings in London between Arafat, the Israeli leader and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Netanyahu told Blair he would attend no matter what the format.
Details still need to be worked out, such as whether it would be a three-way summit or whether Albright would meet separately with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
If Blair succeeds in arranging Mideast talks in London, he will have achieved a key objective of his first visit to the region - raising the European profile in the negotiations.
The Palestinians support greater European involvement, but Israel and the United States oppose bringing another party into the talks.