Sharon praises talks he will not attend

Palestinians must prove their security credentials at London conference
Click to follow
The Independent Online

By the time Tony Blair arrived yesterday at the Muqata, the British-built fort that serves as the Palestinian Authority's administrative base here, it had been spruced up, inside and out. And not just for the visiting Prime Minister.

By the time Tony Blair arrived yesterday at the Muqata, the British-built fort that serves as the Palestinian Authority’s administrative base here, it had been spruced up, inside and out. And not just for the visiting Prime Minister.

Gone were the mangled cars and much of the carefully preserved wreckage that had helped to symbolise the battering the Israeli Army repeatedly had inflicted on it at the peak of the uprising.

Gone, too, were the sandbags behind which the besieged Yasser Arafat had so often performed for television. The refurbishment sent out an unmistakable message that an era had ended and that the compound was no longer a military bunker but a modern, working political headquarters.

A good deal of Mr Blair’s energy yesterday was devoted to seeking a means of ensuring that the makeover was more than merely cosmetic.

After his talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman and presidential election favourite, Mr Blair said that his visit had two purposes: to secure support for the London conference in early March between the international community and the Palestinians; and to establish that both sides in the conflict were ready to return to the internationally agreed road map for peace provided the requisite conditions are met.

These conditions, which the London conference is intended to help the Palestinians fulfil, include economic and political reform, along with effective to steps to end militant violence.

Mr Blair got his conference. Exactly as he had hoped, a combination of effective British diplomacy and the explicit backing of the US ensured that Mr Sharon both described the event as “very important” and, equally welcome to the British, made clear that in view of its Palestinian focus, Israel would not need to be there. Mr Abbas endorsed the proposal with enthusiasm, and did not seek to widen its scope. Mr Abbas gets what this conference is about, and he is going along with it.

Secondly, Mr Blair secured the verbal assurances he had been seeking that both sides envisage a return to the road map if the conditions are met. In particular, Mr Sharon, who had once pronounced the road map all but dead, now promised that he would return to its three stages if his preconditions are fulfilled.

So far so good. But doubts will remain, and the issue of whether the Palestinian leadership can achieve the end to militant violence so emphatically and repeatedly demanded of it by both Mr Sharon and Mr Blair at their news conference yesterday is only one of them.

Another is that even assuming Mr Abbas performs the huge feat of ending an armed uprising that he has often criticised, neither he nor Mr Blair can yet be sure that Mr Sharon intends not only to reciprocate but to sustain the momentum needed to take the process to the final stage of talks which will create two states once and for all.

There are some around Mr Sharon who believe, in effect, in a long-term interim “settlement” – that with the uprising ended, Israel withdrawing from areas occupied since September 2000, and the currently dire economic prospects of Palestinians improving somewhat, final status talks could be postponed, perhaps for a period of years or even decades.

Such an interim outcome is not what Mr Blair, at least, has in mind. He wants the road map to go all the way, perhaps in his and President Bush’s political lifetime.

Yesterday’s visit cannot have reliably assured him that it will. The Middle East has seen many false dawns before. But Mr Blair’s most effective point yesterday to sceptics was that nothing could be lost from the Palestinians putting Mr Sharon’s sincerity to the test by ending the violence and enacting reforms that are anyway beneficial in themselves. Mr Blair is entitled to be cheered by the progress made yesterday.It is not a sufficient condition of a lasting peace. But it may be a necessary one.

Comments