Israel to boycott Blair's peace conference

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Tony Blair will take on the role of go-between for the Israelis and Palestinians as he tries to keep up the momentum of the Middle East peace process on a two-day visit to the region starting today.

Tony Blair will take on the role of go-between for the Israelis and Palestinians as he tries to keep up the momentum of the Middle East peace process on a two-day visit to the region starting today.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon announced yesterday that Israel would not attend the Middle East conference Mr Blair plans to host in London after next month's Palestinian presidential election. The conference is due to discuss how the Palestinian Authority can meet its obligations under the internationally backed road map to peace.

As Mr Blair prepared for a flying visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah, British diplomats received the news of Mr Sharon's announcement with equanimity. It was seen as a logical outcome of preliminary talks last week between Israeli leaders and Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the Prime Minister's senior foreign affairs adviser.

"Mr Sharon's decision neither surprises me nor disturbs me," an official at the British embassy in Tel Aviv told The Independent. "It indicates an understanding on the part of the Israeli government of the purpose and scope of the London conference. It was always our intention that it should be a conference preparing the Palestinians for the day after Israel disengages from Gaza."

The summit will be attended by foreign ministers of donor countries and representatives of the quartet that drafted the road map - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Neither Israel nor Britain wanted to turn the road map into an alternative political initiative. They feared that Israeli participation would change the emphasis, which is meant to be on Palestinian democratisation, economic reform and reconstruction under a new leadership.

A senior source in Mr Sharon's office said that the Israeli decision had been co-ordinated with Downing Street in an extensive exchange of letters. "We support this conference," he said, "but we see no purpose for us to participate. It's between the Palestinians and the donor countries." The Prime Minister will promise Israel that it will not be "bounced" into premature final-status negotiations before it is ready or before the emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership committed to making political progress.

At the same time, Mr Blair will offer to help the Palestinians to "fill the vacuum" when Israel implements Mr Sharon's plan to withdraw more than 7,000 settlers from Gaza. His talks with the Palestinians will cover assistance on security, political reform and economic infrastructure. Mr Blair hopes these proposals will reassure Israel and the US that the Palestinians have a credible, non-militant leadership.

Asked whether the timing of Mr Sharon's announcement - during a meeting yesterday with the Czech Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda, might be seen as a snub to Mr Blair, he replied: "We decided to publicise the content of the letters in order to dispel all the rumours and misconceptions circulating about the purpose and scope of the conference."

No one, however, seems to have told the Palestinians. Saeb Erakat, their chief negotiator, denounced Mr Sharon's decision as "very unfortunate". The Palestinians, he said, believed a conference was the best way to restart peace talks. "We want to focus on reviving the peace process and resuming permanent status negotiations," he said.

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