Blair's peace talks take back seat
TONY Blair was yesterday forced to tone down his plans for an international Middle East peace summit in London, after Israel and the United States warned him not to "interfere".
The Prime Minister yesterday declared that a "meeting" - rather than a conference - will be held in London which would be restricted to helping the new Palestinian government, due to be elected next month.
But Israeli officials have said they will not take part, and privately made clear Mr Blair had invited himself to Jerusalem. They earlier suggested the talks might be motivated by the coming UK general election.
Ending his whistle-stop tour of the Middle East, Mr Blair visited both Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister and Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader expected to succeed the late Yasser Arafat.
For weeks, UK officials have been trying to raise support for a peace conference in London aimed at kick-starting the stalled "road map" to peace agreed in the run-up to the Iraq war last year.
The event, expected to take place weeks before a UK general election on 5 May, has been agreed by Russia, Canada, South Africa, Egypt, Norway, Jordan and Tunisia. But, crucially, Israel has refused to participate.
Standing next to Mr Sharon, Mr Blair stressed he had no intention of suggesting that the first phase of the road map - where Palestinians renounce terrorism - should be skipped. This is what Israelis suspect.
Instead, Mr Blair said, his conference would ensure "there are plans and proposals in place to allow the Palestinian side to become a real partner for peace with Israel".
Mr Sharon, in turn, said a London conference would be "important" but said there is little point in talks while suicide bombs continue. "As long as terror exists it is very hard to expect there to be any change," he said.
Israeli officials had earlier been dismissive about Mr Blair’s efforts - saying the Prime Minister invited himself to Jerusalem and was seeking a role in the peace process now expected to start moving in the wake of Arafat’s death.
Ehud Olmert, Mr Sharon’s deputy, also warned that attempts to stage a set-piece conference in London could "interfere" with Israel’s planned timetable to withdraw from the Gaza Strip within 13 months.
The Scotsman also understands that the White House has told Mr Blair not to force the pace of the peace process by attempting a set-piece conference similar to that held in Madrid in 1991.
But President George Bush’s officials remain deeply indebted to Mr Blair for his support in the Iraq war and have discussed sending Condoleezza Rice, the incoming US State Secretary, to the London event.
Mr Blair was feted in his visit to the West Bank, where he was greeted with a military salute on arrival at Mr Arafat’s old compound in Ramallah.
Mr Abbas heaped praise on the Prime Minister, saying he is "in a unique position to help us progress in our peaceful pursuit" and that a London conference would be "the first step towards consolidating the peace process".
At their joint press conference, Mr Blair spoke in upbeat terms.
But among independent Palestinian politicians and analysts the dismay was palpable at Mr Blair’s decision to restrict the conference’s agenda to Palestinian reform, and for urging the Palestinians to take security steps without making parallel demands on the Israelis.
Hassan Khreisheh, the acting speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told The Scotsman: "I think the Israeli side has exercised more pressure on Blair than Blair did on the Israelis."
Hani Masri, a leading Palestinian analyst, said that by focusing exclusively on Palestinian reform, Britain was playing into what he said was Mr Sharon’s goal of consolidating Israel’s hold in the West Bank and foreclosing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.
Bernard Reich, an expert on the Middle East, questioned the usefulness of the Blair conference. "A conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict without an Israeli presence is worthless. It makes no sense," he said.
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