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London Conference to Promote Palestinian Reforms

Senior officials from nearly 30 countries will meet in London next Tuesday to offer international support for Palestinian reforms as a step toward helping settle the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinian Authority historically has been plagued by problems of corruption and ineffective management.

But with the death of long-time leader Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the authority's president, there is renewed hope in the world community for movement toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is on this basis that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has organized the London conference on Tuesday to drum up international support for Palestinian reforms.

The conference will bring Mr. Abbas together with some of the leading diplomats in the world, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

A large number of Arab states, which have traditionally been reluctant to fund the Palestinian Authority, also are sending foreign ministers to the conference.

Prime Minister Blair says the conference is a necessary step toward Middle East peace, but he plays down the prospect of any major or immediate breakthrough.

"We've had a lot of renewed hope and optimism in the Middle East, and that's great, and I would pay tribute to both sides for that progress," he said. "But no one should be under any doubt at all, this is only the beginnings of renewal. We are a long way off [of] this peace process getting back into negotiations that can lead to a final settlement of it."

President Bush, in his main speech during his just-concluded trip to Europe, said the Palestinians can reap big rewards from the London conference, if they so choose.

"President Abbas has the opportunity to put forward a strategy of reform, which can and will gain support from the international community, including financial support," he said. "I hope he will seize the moment."

Among Palestinian leaders, there is hope the London conference will generate international pressure to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Hanan Ashrawi is a member of the Palestinian parliament, who spoke about the issue on British television.

"This is something that the U.S. and the international community must do, particularly in the upcoming London conference, that there must be a political framework, a political focus, a political course of action," commented Ms. Ashrawi. "That would give hope to both peoples, but to the Palestinians in particular, that violence is not the only way, that the occupation will end and the two-state solution will come into place."

The London conference agenda will include a Palestinian presentation of a strategic work plan on governance, security and economic development.

It is expected the United States will offer assistance on building up the Palestinians' security capabilities, and other nations will pledge support for other aspects of the work plan.

Senior British diplomats say that, while Israel is not attending the conference, the Israeli government has been consulted closely on its planning, and will be intimately involved in the follow up.

British officials say the conference should lead to a meeting of donors in a few months to begin raising the billions of dollars the Palestinians will need to construct a new state.

One British foreign office official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said time is short to strengthen Palestinian governing institutions to assume full charge of Gaza and parts of the West Bank that Israel plans to begin withdrawing from in July.

The official says the biggest concern is that hard-liners in both Israel and the Palestinian territories will do all they can to torpedo any move toward a lasting peace.