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Palestinians May Miss Opportunity to Build State, Says Blair - 2004-04-17


British Prime Minister Tony Blair says Palestinians will miss an opportunity to begin building their own state, if they continue to reject the Israeli prime minister's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Mr. Blair also discussed the challenges in Iraq in a wide-ranging interview broadcast Saturday.

Prime Minister Blair says the international Middle East road map to peace remains viable, despite the controversy over Israel's intention to remove Jewish settlers from all of the Gaza Strip and sections of the West Bank.

Palestinian leaders have rejected the Israeli plan, because some large Jewish settlements would remain intact in the West Bank, while Palestinians could not reclaim land they lost inside Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948. President Bush's endorsement of the plan has further inflamed Palestinian public opinion.

Prime Minister Blair, who met with Mr. Bush in Washington Friday, told British radio Palestinians should seize the proposed Israeli withdrawal as an opportunity to begin building their own country.

"Surely, the sensible reaction for the international community is to say to the Palestinians: 'Right. We will now help you economically, politically, in security terms build the beginnings of a Palestinian Authority capable of wielding power and running a Palestinian state.' Of course it's not the road map," said Tony Blair. "But it's a way into the road map. It's not a final negotiated settlement, but it's at least an opportunity to get going on the business of building a state."

The "road map" refers to a peace plan drawn up by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia that would give Israel security guarantees and create a Palestinian state.

Regarding Iraq, Mr. Blair refused to characterize U.S. military tactics there as being so heavy-handed as to cause unnecessary civilian casualties, a criticism that has been leveled by some prominent former British officials.

Mr. Blair said the coalition faces difficult challenges in Iraq in fighting what he calls "fanatics, extremists and terrorists," without antagonizing the civilian population.

"You've got to do both," he said. "You've got to do the hearts-and-minds and the military. If you get a situation, as you had in Fallujah, where you had four civilian contractors dragged from their cars, brutally murdered and mutilated, you can't sit back and do nothing. Otherwise, that will send a signal of weakness across the whole country. On the other hand, you've also got to make sure you are also trying to reach out to the Sunni community, trying to make sure that the Shias want to work with the Sunnis, and the Kurds want to work with both groups. It's always going to be a tough process."

Mr. Blair said he has no regrets about joining the invasion of Iraq, despite the so-far fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction, which was Britain's principle reason for going to war.

The prime minister says the team looking for Iraq's banned weapons has found numerous violations of U.N. resolutions, and it was the breech of those resolutions that justified the invasion.

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