Blair urges the Palestinians to hold talks with Israel

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Tony Blair has raised the pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel on a two-state solution for their people, after the Israeli Prime Minister spelled out his plans to unilaterally redraw the border if a negotiated settlement cannot be reached.

Mr Blair, speaking after two hours of talks with Ehud Olmert at Downing Street, did not explicitly endorse his unilateral plan to withdraw from a large part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, while expanding illegal settlements including around Jerusalem.

But the Prime Minister left no doubt that he was convinced by Mr Olmert's determination to act unilaterally if that did not happen, and stressed that the status quo was not sustainable.

"Then we're in a stalemate that Israel is necessarily and realistically going to want to unlock. This thing either moves forward by negotiations, or other ways have to be found," Mr Blair warned. "But I want it to move forward by negotiations, and so does the Prime Minister."

He added that the role of the international community was to give the " best chance possible" to negotiations for a two-state settlement. Downing Street denied that Mr Blair might be preparing to launch a personal mediation mission.

"If you can get negotiations under way, a solution is possible," Mr Blair added, stressing the three internationally-agreed conditions for negotiations, following the election of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas government in Palestinian areas in January. These are Israel's right to exist, the renunciation of violence, and adherence to the road map for peace.

However, Hamas has steadfastly refused to recognise Israel, prompting an international boycott of its government. Asked yesterday whether Israel should negotiate with Hamas, Mr Blair responded: "You can only negotiate with people who are prepared to accept your existence and stop violence."

Israel and the Europeans want to bolster President Mohammed Abbas as a possible negotiating partner, but await the outcome of a Palestinian referendum he has called for next month seeking Palestinian endorsement for a plan implicitly recognising Israel.

Tensions between Palestinian factions escalated yesterday as hundreds of gunmen loyal to Mr Abbas rampaged against the Hamas government, firing on the parliament building and Cabinet offices before setting them ablaze. Dozens of militiamen from the pro-Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade joined the mob, and Fatah gunmen briefly kidnapped a Hamas MP. Mr Abbas condemned the Palestinian infighting.