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Britain's Blair Meets Middle East Leaders to Push Peace Efforts

  • Larry James

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is seeking to revive Middle East peace efforts, including arrangements for an international conference he hopes to host early next year. Mr. Blair held talks in Israel with Ariel Sharon and then met with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Prime Minister Blair and other world leaders have said that following the death last month of Yasser Arafat, there is now a new, unique opportunity to revive peace negotiations. Mr. Blair came to Israel to try to do just that.

At a joint news conference with new PLO Chief Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Prime Minister Blair said it is vital to get back to the internationally-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions an independent Palestinian state.

"We can all talk about the road map and say we agree with the road map, say we agree with the two-state solution," he said. "But, we've had paralysis frankly for months if not years in this process."

And, Mr. Blair said he hopes a meeting in London early next year will help end that paralysis. He said Palestinians need help in establishing democratic institutions to take advantage of a renewed international commitment to the peace process as well as Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Mahmoud Abbas, who is the favored candidate to succeed Yasser Arafat in presidential elections January 9, is viewed as a proponent of reforms and of an end to violence. He welcomed Mr. Blair's proposal for a London conference and a return to peace talks.

Mr. Abbas said the Palestinians are eager to make up for lost time and sit down with the Israelis. He said they want to tackle the issues that will lead to a final status agreement and he vowed Palestinians would fulfill their commitments to make that happen.

Earlier in the day, after meeting Tony Blair in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made it clear that any progress and resumption of peace talks hinges upon an end to Palestinian violence and incitement.

"I believe that if the terror will come to its end, the door will be open for the road map, which will change I believe, the life of the Israelis, the Palestinians and change the situation in the region," he said.

Speaking in Jerusalem earlier Wednesday, Mr. Blair also said everyone must understand that terrorism is not the way to negotiations, but rather a hindrance.

"There is not going to be any successful negotiation or peace without an end to terrorism," he said.

In Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas had some demands for Israel. Mr. Abbas said Israel should stop what he termed hostilities against the Palestinians, cease the construction of the security barrier in the West Bank. He also called for a release of Palestinian prisoners. Mr. Abbas said doing those things would go a long way toward encouraging Palestinians to support peace efforts and negotiations.

The talks in Ramallah were held in Mr. Arafat's Muqata compound. When Mr. Blair arrived there, he walked over to Mr. Arafat's grave and nodded briefly in respect.

Meanwhile, the violence continues. Israeli officials say Palestinian gunmen today shot dead an Israeli civilian west of the city of Hebron. Officials say the Israeli man was working on the barrier that the Jewish state is building inside the West Bank. Also, Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians in different parts of the Gaza Strip.

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