Donald Macintyre: A one-way breakthrough on road to peace

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The "London meeting to support the Palestinian Authority" which Tony Blair will host tomorrow, albeit not a full-scale international peace conference, represents a considerable feat of diplomatic orchestration.

The "London meeting to support the Palestinian Authority" which Tony Blair will host tomorrow, albeit not a full-scale international peace conference, represents a considerable feat of diplomatic orchestration.

On one level the purpose is almost mundanely practical. After President George Bush's speech in Brussels last week, an upbeat Mr Blair told his fellow members of the European Council that "we now have the basic vision" of a Palestinian state, adding: "What we now have to do is to implement it."

Tomorrow's conference deals almost entirely with one side of that process. For all its acceptance of the need for Israel as well as the Palestinians to fulfil its commitments under Phase I of the road map, most of the exhaustively pre-cooked 17-page document which will emerge from the conference has to do with Palestinian ones, and the international help Mr Abbas can expect in meeting them.

Even before last Friday's suicide bombing the conference was going to major on reform and training of the Pales- tinian security services, with the unveiling of a "security group" led by US General William Ward, but also with Egyptian and Jordanian involvement.

There will be promises - though probably no hard figures until a donor conference later in the year - on what the developed world will do to ease the dire afflictions of the Palestinian economy. These range from the short-term problems faced by the able and respected Finance Minister Salam Fayed in paying the wages of public servants to the urgent need for private-sector investment - including in Gaza after Israeli disengagement - to regenerate a stricken economy in which 60 per cent unemployment is a conservative estimate.

There will also be discussion of anti-corruption measures. The European Commission will explain how it is going to help the Palestinian Authority develop its political and electoral structures, and so on.

What took the orchestrating, however, was getting here at all. At the outset, both Palestinians and Israelis were fairly unimpressed, with officials on both sides suggesting, sotto voce, that it might have more to do with Mr Blair's domestic agenda post-Iraq than the future of the region. Mr Abbas did not finally make up his mind to come until a week ago.

Some Palestinian officials say - and their British counterparts deny - that Mr Blair had to press him into it. The Israelis wanted the conference to concentrate on the Palestinian economy and not be a "political" attempt to kickstart the peace process; the Palestinians' worry was rather the reverse.

The resulting text, every draft of which the British have shown to Israel despite its agreed absence tomorrow, and the work largely of Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Mr Blair's senior foreign affairs adviser, is seen in London as a triumph of "balance" between these competing views.

Putting their best face on it, the Palestinians take some comfort from an opening section on the crucial importance of the road map, and from language which explicitly recognises that Israeli closures and checkpoints - indeed the occupation, though the word is predictably not used - play a crucial part in hampering the Palestinian economy.

At the same time the Palestinian negotiators were less happy at the stipulation, heavily argued for by Israel in the drafting process, that any dismantling of these had to be consistent with Israeli security needs - not because they want Israel to be insecure but because they believe the withdrawal from the territory it seized in 1967 is the best guarantee of security.

There is a possible subtext to all this, one which British officials, highly sensitised to Israeli concerns, will barely own up to. Which is that if the international community can help the Palestinians fulfil their road map obligations, including the increasingly tough Israeli calls for Mr Abbas to crack down on militants, there will be no excuse for Israel not to freeze the settlement expansion which has continued unabated and fully return, post-Gaza disengagement, to the negotiating table.

Tomorrow's very limited agenda, wearisomely for the Palestinian leadership, focuses largely on what Mr Abbas - rather than Mr Sharon - has to do. But it may at least help to give the international community - and Washington especially - a tangible stake in his success.

THE SCHEDULE

TODAY

Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian President, arrives in London and has meetings with Jack Straw and Tony Blair.

TOMORROW

Conference entitled "London meeting on supporting the Palestinian Authority" attended by 30 delegations at foreign minister level, including US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, Arab ministers, EU ministers and UN secretary general Kofi Annan. Israel not sending a representative.

Mr Abbas will present PA plans in three areas under discussion: rationalising Palestinian security, economic reforms and institution-building. Conference delegates respond in plenary session.

A 17-page final document will be issued with concluding remarks by Mr Blair and Mr Abbas.

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