Britain said yesterday it was upgrading the status of the Palestinian representation in London, from a delegation to a full diplomatic mission. The Foreign Office said in a statement that this was an "administrative step," but in an address to Parliament, Foreign Secretary William Hague cited "the extent of our aid to the Palestinian Authority and our work with them" as the reason.
Hague will meet in London today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in part to confirm the move. In his address yesterday the foreign secretary said: "It remains more vital than ever that we press for a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We want to see an urgent return to negotiations, based on clear parameters including 1967 borders. We will work with all the parties to press for a decisive breakthrough this year."
British diplomats said yesterday that the diplomatic upgrade involves renaming the Palestinian General Delegation Office the Palestinian Mission; simplified visa arrangements for members of the mission; changing the title of the head of delegation to head of mission and a request that Westminster Council provide personal parking spaces for Palestinian Mission officials.
Foreign Office officials emphasized that the upgrade does not confer formal diplomatic status to the mission, nor the associated privileges and immunities of diplomatic status.
"This is not the first step toward U.K. recognition of a Palestinian state," a British diplomat said. "It is right that we should recognize the progress made in building institutions of state."
In recent months France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, the United States and other countries have announced similar upgrades to PA diplomatic delegations. While the measures are symbolic gestures only, they stand out against the cold shoulder being shown by European Union members to Israel with regard to the peace process.
At yesterday's Likud Knesset caucus meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his party colleagues not to believe everything they read in the newspaper, referring to recent reports that he is drafting a new peace plan.
"I am still formulating my position, and anyone who wants can come and pitch me ideas," he said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio yesterday that Netanyahu must put forth a new proposal within the next few weeks, rather than waiting until the AIPAC conference in Washington in May, when the prime minister may also present his plan in an address to the joint houses of Congress.
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor expressed similar sentiments in an interview with Army Radio yesterday, saying that Netanyahu would have the support of most Likud MKs were he to announce the transfer of additional West Bank territory from Israeli to full Palestinian control. "It's an Israeli interest of the highest order. If we don't take the initiative the entire world will recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders," Meridor said.
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