Blair urges renewed peace effort

British prime minister meets with leadership of Mideast adversaries

December 23, 2004|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM - British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday to promote an international conference in London on Palestinian reforms, saying the gathering could lay the groundwork for a resumption of peace negotiations.

Blair, who has been harshly criticized in the Arab world for Britain's alliance with the United States in the war in Iraq, has been eager to demonstrate involvement in a revived Middle East peace effort after the death of Yasser Arafat.

He was the highest-ranking visitor to Israel and the West Bank after a series of visits by foreign ministers in recent weeks.

Blair met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and traveled to the West Bank town of Ramallah for talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who is favored to win the Jan. 9 election to choose Arafat's successor as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Blair said the London conference, a one-day meeting in March, would focus on reforms in the Palestinian administration, security forces and financial system and would serve as a "bridge to the road map," the stalled international peace plan that outlines steps to resume talks leading to a Palestinian state.

"Viability cannot just be about territory," Blair said. "It also has to be about proper democratic institutions, about proper security and proper use of the economy."

Blair said a reform plan would "allow the Palestinian side to become a proper partner for peace with Israel" and ensure that Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could lead to renewed negotiations.

Palestinian officials initially had hoped for a major peace conference with a broader agenda touching key points of dispute, but Israel, wary of international pressure for more territorial concessions, insisted that the conference deal only with reforms and financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon said Israel would not attend.

"Since the subject deals with only Palestinian issues," he said after meeting Blair, "together we reached the conclusion that there is no need for Israeli participation."

Blair said he would not try to take the place of the United States in leading efforts to revive negotiations on substantive issues. The London conference could help create proper conditions for future talks, but it "cannot be a substitute for conferences under the road map or what then happens in any negotiations that take place at a later stage," he said.

Abbas said that the Palestinians are eager to resume talks with Israel. "We are very keen and very concerned about catching up on lost time," he said.

But both Blair and Sharon said there could be no progress without an end to Palestinian attacks.

"There is not going to be any successful negotiation or peace without an end to terrorism," Blair said.

Sharon said that "if terror will come to an end - there should be a full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement - the door will be opened for the road map."

There was fresh violence yesterday. Palestinian militants killed a guard at a construction site of the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of the mainstream Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the shooting near Hebron.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces raided the Khan Yunis refugee camp for the second time in the past week in response to mortar attacks on neighboring Israeli settlements, demolishing homes the army said were used by militants to launch the attacks. Three Palestinians were killed, including two gunmen, according to Israeli and Palestinian reports.

Troops shot and killed another Palestinian in the northern Gaza Strip as he tried to climb over the fence separating the area from Israel, the army said.

After his meeting with Blair, Abbas said there also should be pressure on Israel to meet its commitments under the road map, specifically a halt to expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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