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Palestinian Reform Meeting Begins in Britain - 2003-01-14

Britain is hosting a meeting on Palestinian reform today despite an Israeli travel ban on Palestinian delegates invited to take part. Britain is going ahead with the one-day meeting, though Palestinian representatives are participating via a video link from the West Bank. That is because of the travel ban imposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Israel made its decision after the recent Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 22 Israelis in Tel Aviv. The London conference is on reform of the Palestinian Authority, but Mr. Sharon says the institution, led by Yasser Arafat, is beyond reform.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed hard for the London meeting. He says the Israel-Palestinian conflict complicates efforts to win Muslim support for combating terrorism and confronting Iraq. He addressed the issue at his monthly news conference Monday. "The reason why I think it's important to discuss political reform with the Palestinians is that there has been a sense in Israel, and outside, that unless we get the right political mechanisms in place, then it's difficult to make progress on the Middle East," says Mr. Blair.

Mr. Blair declined to criticize Prime Minister Sharon, saying Israel is free to take its own position on the matter.

The conference agenda calls for discussions on political, judicial and economic reform of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the body's role in stopping terrorism.

Nine Palestinians officials are joining in the video conference, but Mr. Arafat was not scheduled to participate.

Other delegates include officials from the United States, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece.