Blair pushes London meeting

Tony Blair, center, reviews a Palestinian honor guard with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Dec. 22 in Ramallah. (Brian Hendler)

Tony Blair, center, reviews a Palestinian honor guard with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Dec. 22 in Ramallah.

(Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV, Dec. 22 (JTA) — A conference in London might be the next stop on the long road to Mideast peace, if British Prime Minister Tony Blair has his way. Blair, who visited Jerusalem and Ramallah on Wednesday, made his case to Israeli and Palestinian leaders for an international conference in London early next year that would help bolster the Palestinian Authority and spur it to confront terrorists. “My purpose is not simply to hold a meeting or conference,” Blair said at a news conference with Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chief and front-runner in P.A. presidential elections set for Jan. 9. “My purpose is to help the Palestinian Authority and its people so that they can develop a viable Palestinian state, and then get back into the ‘road map,’ ” an internationally backed peace plan. Blair’s visit and renewed involvement in peace efforts is part of a wave of diplomatic activity set off by the death of P.A. President Yasser Arafat and the Israeli government’s plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. After more than four years of the violent Palestinian intifada and the accompanying diplomatic stalemate, winds of change are in the air. Blair has made clear that he wants to be among those making a difference in the Middle East. Blair said he envisions the London conference as a way to help the Palestinians create a viable and stable democracy strong enough to curb terrorist elements that derail peace efforts. He said the conference is to help the Palestinians get ready for Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza so they can take full advantage of the development. Blair looked relaxed and confident as he laid out his plan for reviving peace efforts. The first step, he said, is committing to a two-state solution that provides for an independent Palestinian state and a secure Israel. Next, a P.A. president will be elected, after which the Palestinians can begin to plan their political and economic future. He sees disengagement as the final step toward a return to peace talks. But Blair hinted that he expects further concessions by Israel beyond its plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and a section of the northern West Bank. “I certainly have understood” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “to be saying very, very clearly, provided that the terrorism stops,” that “disengagement is not the last word,” Blair said. In turn, Sharon said that once a new Palestinian leadership makes headway against terrorism, other moves would be easier. It “will enable us to turn to the road map, and implement everything which is in the road map,” Sharon said. Sharon welcomed Blair’s conference idea but said Israel would not send a delegation, since the meeting will focus on P.A. reform and not on outstanding issues between the two sides. In Ramallah, Abbas said Israel could contribute to an improved atmosphere by stopping construction of settlements and the West Bank security fence, and by releasing Palestinian prisoners. “All of these things will create an atmosphere that will encourage the Palestinians,” Abbas said. Israel this week offered to release 170 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, but P.A. officials dismissed the offer as insufficient. In an interview with Israel Television, Blair was asked if he thought Abbas was a partner Israel could work with. “I hope so. He has agreed to take part in the conference in London and at the end of it we will have a very clear idea if we have a basis to move forward,” Blair said. However, violence continued this week, with Palestinian gunmen killing an Israeli security guard at a construction site near Hebron on Wednesday. An Israeli woman was slain near Beit Shemesh on Tuesday in an apparent terrorist attack. Israeli troops entered a Gaza Strip refugee camp early Wednesday to halt mortar and rocket fire on Israeli settlements. Soldiers killed an armed Palestinian during the operation.

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