Blair: Ending violence is prerequisite
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a whirlwind one-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, made clear that the international meeting he envisions in London would deal with Palestinian reform, and would not be an international peace conference.
Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the idea, but for different reasons: Sharon because it would facilitate Palestinian reform, and Abbas because he views it as a first step toward reviving the peace process.
Blair also made it clear that an end to terrorism is a precondition for negotiations.
"In respect to terrorism, let me make one thing very clear: there is not going to be any successful negotiation or peace without an end to terrorism," he said at a Jerusalem press conference.
"I think the most important thing for us to understand is that terrorism is not the way to a negotiated settlement. Terrorism is the obstacle to a negotiated settlement," he said.
Blair stressed on a number of occasions that the international meeting he hopes to convene, tentatively slated for February or March at the level of foreign ministers, is not a substitute for the international conference called for on the road map.
The second stage of the road map calls for an international conference to launch a process leading to an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders. Israel was initially concerned that the London conference was an attempt to usurp this role, thereby representing a leap over the first stage of the road map, which requires the Palestinians to combat terrorism.
"Let me say right at the very beginning, [this meeting] is not and cannot be a substitute for the conferences under the road map," Blair said. "But what it can do, I hope, is ensure that there is a real sense that when disengagement happens, there are plans and proposals in place to allow the Palestinian side to become a proper partner for peace with Israel."
Blair made his comments after meeting for some two hours with Sharon in his Jerusalem office. That meeting, and an exchange of letters that preceded Blair's visit, softened Sharon's initial opposition to the international parley, and the original opposition gave way to an actual embrace of the idea on Wednesday.
"I told the prime minister that we welcome his initiative and we regard it to be very important," Sharon said. "It is our view that an efficient and comprehensive reform process will help the Palestinians run an effective administration which would be able to face the challenges that lie ahead, including fighting terror and dismantling its infrastructure."
Sharon said it was decided, after consulting with Blair, that Israel will not attend the conference because it is meant to assist the Palestinian implementation of reforms, and "will deal solely with Palestinian issues."
Blair said the conference is the third step in a four-step process that he and US President George W. Bush believe will lead the sides back to the road map.
Blair said the first step was "to set out the overall vision that people want to get to, which is the two-state solution, and that we did. The second is that there should be free and fair elections for the new Palestinian president. That is now underway.
"The third step was then to make sure, prior to disengagement actually happening, that there was a clear plan for the Palestinian side in respect to the measures necessary for political institutions, economic transparency and security that ensure that we could indeed have proper partners for peace on either side," he said.
Blair said the fourth step is disengagement, and that the conference will try to establish "a proper and viable plan in order to make sure that disengagement can indeed then lead back into the road map" before disengagement occurs.
After meeting Sharon, Blair then went to separate brief meetings with President Moshe Katsav, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert, and Labor Party head Shimon Peres. He then traveled to Ramallah for meetings with the Palestinian leadership.
Whereas Abbas welcomed the London meeting by saying it would help revive the peace process, PA Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath warned that the proposed conference would not bring peace to the region.
Abbas, speaking at a press conference in the Mukata compound in Ramallah after his meeting with Blair, said, "We believe this conference will be a first step in achieving and consolidating the peace process. This conference will be an important opportunity for us Palestinians to pursue our work in reform."
Abbas called for an end to the construction of settlements and the implementation of the road map.
"We expect a stop to the expansion of settlements from the Israeli side and we are very keen and concerned to catch up on the time lost," he said. "We think addressing final status issues is very important. We are ready to start immediate negotiations."
Blair, in Ramallah, spoke of a "sense of hope" that peace talks could be revived, and said he was encouraged by the Palestinian reaction to his plan.
"I think that everyone is very well aware that this is an important time and it is an important opportunity," he added.
"I think there is a great sense of hope that there can be progress. But as we all know, having the hope is one thing, translating it into reality is another. "I hope that this London conference can play some part in that."
Palestinian officials were all smiles on the podium next to Blair, but just before he arrived, Shaath politely criticized the London Conference, saying that all peace efforts, British and otherwise, should focus on ending the Israeli occupation.
"We naturally welcome economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, but the real problem is the Israeli occupation," he said.
"This conference will not bring back the peace, but it should be seen as a continuation of the donors' meeting in Oslo two weeks ago. We need financial aid to rebuild our institutions, but this won't bring about peace."
At the joint press conference with Abbas, Palestinian journalists repeatedly attacked Blair, accusing him of bias against Israel.
"The Palestinian people denounced the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why are you now going to sit down with the coalition forces to discuss the future of Palestine?" one incensed reporter demanded of Abbas.
The official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda also attacked Britain, describing the 1917 Balfour Declaration as "a despicable act" with its promise to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
"We put aside our memories and sadness and we suppress our frustration and anger to receive Tony Blair and to hear something useful from him," wrote columnist Fuad Abu Hajleh under the heading "From Balfour to Blair."
The armed wing of Fatah, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, declared Blair persona non grata for refusing to lay a wreath on Arafat's grave.
Before meeting with Abbas, Blair passed by Arafat's grave and stood for a few seconds. However, by not laying a wreath on the grave, Blair enraged several Palestinian leaders and Fatah officials.
"Blair's visit does not bring respect to the Palestinian people," said a spokesman for the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. "We haven't forgotten who wrought on the Palestinian people the disaster of the Balfour Declaration. If Blair had laid a wreath on Arafat's tomb, it would have desecrated the grave. His position shows a lack of respect to the Palestinian people, their traditions and leaders."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw did lay a wreath on Arafat's grave when he visited last month. British diplomatic officials said that Israel did not request that Blair not place a wreath on Arafat's tomb.