Blair hopes to allay Israeli suspicions over peace talks

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The Independent Online

Despite sharply diverging views over a planned Middle East conference in London in the new year, Tony Blair will this week make a concerted effort to keep the plan on track.

Despite sharply diverging views over a planned Middle East conference in London in the new year, Tony Blair will this week make a concerted effort to keep the plan on track.

There are continued suspicions in some Israeli circles about the idea of any international meeting discussing a peace process in the Middle East. But Mr Blair will use a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to overcome such difficulties.

And the British Prime Minister, who will also meet Mahmoud Abbas, the clear favourite to succeed Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), will attempt to dampen hopes by Palestinian officials that the conference could start discussing the terms of a "final status" settlement of the conflict.

Mr Blair, the first foreign head of government to visit the region since the death of Mr Arafat, will arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow. He sees the London meeting as a means of offering practical, financial and moral support to what will be by then the newly elected Palestinian leadership to fulfil its obligations under the internationally agreed road-map to peace.

Officials say the agenda would cover the PA's responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip after implementation of Mr Sharon's plan to withdraw more than 7,000 Jewish settlers, political and economic reform designed to reduce corruption and increase accountability in the Authority, and economic regeneration. The conference would be attended by foreign ministers - including the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice - from countries that donate funds to the PA and the "quartet" designated to monitor progress on the road-map - the EU, US, UN and Russia.

British officials hope that the London conference will help to inject new momentum into the peace process by demonstrating Palestinian willingness to abide by the road-map - including through securing an end to militant violence.

But the British government is holding fast to firm assurances given to Mr Sharon last week by Mr Blair's senior foreign affairs adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, that it is not trying to jump-start a final settlement.

One Israeli official suggested yesterday that the Blair initiative was partly aimed at uniting the Labour Party in the run-up to the next British general election, and added that Mr Sharon also faced domestic political opposition to anything which smacked of an international peace summit.

But Zalman Shuval, a senior diplomatic adviser to Mr Sharon, sounded a more emollient note, saying the Blair visit would be "important". Mr Shuval, a former ambassador to the US, said Israel and the US saw the main goal of the London "meeting" as being to "aid the Palestinians in the post-[Gaza] disengagement period because they will have the chance to exercise control in all walks of life and will need more help".

Mr Shuval added that it comes after a meeting in Oslo last month of donor countries who had indicated a readiness to double aid to the PA with an $8bn (£4.1bn) package if the new Palestinian leadership "brings the security organisations under its control and reins in the terrorist organisations". He said he believed Mr Blair understood there would be serious Israeli concerns if the conference "expanded into matters like permanent status".

Because of its Palestinian focus, Britain does not expect Israel to attend the London event. But Mr Shuval said it might have to do so if issues such as the co-ordination of security measures were discussed.

This stance contrasts sharply with the hopes expressed by a Palestine Liberation Organisation official yesterday that the meeting would indeed cover issues such as "continued colonisation and settlement building by Israel".

The Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said yesterday: "By all means let's discuss reform. But we also need to focus in parallel on the other issues in the road-map, including final status."

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