Chretien arrives in Israel to begin Middle East tour

Prime Minister Jean Chretien has arrived in Israel. During his 12-day trip to the Middle East, Chretien will visit six countries, meeting local leaders and promoting Canadian business abroad.

Chretien is the first sitting Canadian prime minister to pay an official visit to Israel and its neighbours Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

The 12-day trip also includes stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where the prime minister will promote closer economic ties and emphasize Canada's leadership in emerging high-tech industries.

Canadian officials say Chretien wants to underscore Canada's support for the continuing peace process, without taking sides.

Canadian peacekeepers serve on the Golan Heights, and Canada heads an international discussion group seeking to improve the living conditions of 3.6 million Palestinian refugees.

However, Chretien won't take a position on whether the Palestinian refugees have a right to return home, or on the competing Palestinian and Israeli claims to Jerusalem.

The prime minister will talk with the leaders of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian authority.

But, in apparent deference to the Israelis, he won't be going to mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem, which has been under Israel's control since 1967.

Some Palestinians say Chretien's decision is cowardly.

"Should he persist in not meeting Palestinians in East Jerusalem, it means he will be playing into Israeli hands in trying to impose and dictate an illegal Israeli sovereignty," complains Hannan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman.

But Jewish leaders disagree. Frank Diamant, of B'nai Brith Canada says the prime minister would be "snubbing his host" if he went to East Jerusalem.

No major announcements are expected by Chretien while he is abroad. In fact, government officials have made it clear that Canada is trying hard not to offend anyone during this trip.