Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff said yesterday that he never expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his Middle East visit.

Mr Goff is visiting the Middle East and tomorrow intends meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - a meeting which precludes him from meeting Mr Sharon, who refuses to meet any foreign minister who sees Mr Arafat.

Mr Goff said Mr Sharon's stance had been publicised and he knew of it before heading to the Middle East.

"We never sought a meeting with the Prime Minister."

Mr Sharon had not blocked access to any Israeli officials. Mr Goff met the Deputy Prime Minister and would meet officials including the foreign affairs and finance ministers.

Mr Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, said Mr Arafat was "a major obstacle to peace" in the Middle East and the Israeli Government did not want any foreign leaders or ministers to meet him.

"By meeting Arafat they're actually undermining a very delicate process that is going on, in which the Palestinian Government and the new Prime Minister are trying to lead in a new direction," he said.

But Mr Goff was adamant Mr Sharon could not dictate who overseas visitors should meet.

" ... It is no more appropriate for Prime Minister Sharon to determine who I should meet on the Palestinian side than it would be for the Palestinian Authority to determine who I met on the Israeli side."

Green MP Keith Locke supported Mr Goff's stance.

"Bullying is unacceptable, whether it comes from Ariel Sharon or [US President] George W. Bush."

Progressive Coalition MP Matt Robson, who is chairman of New Zealand's Parliament-Palestinian Authority friendship group of MPs, said Mr Sharon's position was "insulting and absurd".

But National leader Bill English accused Mr Goff of "cuddling up" to Mr Arafat. "After undermining our relationship with the United States, Labour is now putting itself offside with another nation by allowing Phil Goff to meet with Yasser Arafat despite Israeli concerns."

Act leader Richard Prebble said Mr Goff's decision was another foreign policy gaffe.

"It is yet another example of the Clark Government's incompetent, student-like, anti-American foreign policy. Silly, gesture politics that will cost New Zealand dearly."

- NZPA

Herald Feature: The Middle East

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