Palestinian talks make steps towards peace

By Anne Penketh

The Palestinians have been told that the rest of the world wants them to have a "viable" independent state and will help overhaul their security apparatus and institutions to seize the "best chance for peace" in the Middle East in years.

But the delegates at an international conference convened by Tony Blair in support of the Palestinian Authority also made it clear that concrete steps should be taken by the Palestinians in dismantling the terrorist infrastructure before Israel would be pressed to take reciprocal steps.

Israel was not invited to the meeting, which was attended by 30 foreign ministers and the representatives of financial institutions as well as the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

The Palestinians were further disappointed by a statement issued after a meeting of the Quartet - US, UN, EU and Russia - which summarily called for "immediate action" by the Palestinian Authority to arrest and bring to justice the perpetrators of last Friday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

The government of President Mahmoud Abbas was boosted by an announcement that states had pledged a total $1.2bn to help the Palestinian Authority meet its financial needs in 2005 as it takes steps to deal with unemployment running at 26 per cent and to pay off members of the soon-to-be-streamlined security forces.

But little of the amount pledged was new money: only one third of the £30m pledged by Britain had not already been made available. A donor conference is due to be scheduled in June this year.

In the conference's final document, Mr Abbas commits his government to scaling back the 13 disparate security organisations in the Palestinian territories to three. The move was welcomed by the international community which has agreed to set up a US-led security group.

Britain, Egypt, Jordan and the EU are expected to be in the security group which will provide technical expertise to the Palestinians, in a move, which it is hoped, will reassure the Israelis about their own security.

Tony Blair stressed that the meeting had never been intended as a forum for negotiations towards a final peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israel.

Both he and the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said that the meeting was an attempt to lay a "foundation" for a two-state solution through the road map.

Mr Blair said: "What we have today is an agreement not just on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which has got to usher in such a state, but also on behalf of the whole of the international community as to the practical steps, the foundation stones necessary to create that viable state."

The conference's final document reaffirmed the international community's commitment to the road map for peace, and condemned the bomb attack in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis, saying that it should not be allowed to sabotage the peace process.

It described the pledges by the Palestinian Authority on Palestinian security, economic and institutional reforms as constituting "a major step in implementing its road map commitments," if carried out.

At the same time, the delegates "urged and expect action by Israel in relation to its own road map commitments", which notably include an end to settlement construction.

Arab delegates told The Independent they were encouraged by Ms Rice's statement, endorsed by the Quartet, that "a state of scattered territories will not work".

But they remained sceptical about the chances of progress as a result of the meeting, with one senior Saudi official saying: "we've been here before".

Mr Abbas made it clear that the road map which sets out a strict timetable for peace remained the only game in town. He also warned of the danger of separating a political settlement from the technical steps agreed at the conference.

"Security is vulnerable to regression and even collapses if it not protected by a serious political process between us and the Israelis, the delay of which is unjustified.

"When I refer to a serious political process, I mean a process that gives the Palestinian people confidence that the occupation that began in 1967 will end without delay. This is the goal that we need to strive for with you and with Israel to achieve," he said.

"Creating such confidence requires that the manifestation of such occupation - the construction of settlements, the Wall and land confiscation - immediately come to an end."

He also called for the meeting to lead to a full-scale peace conference, in line with the road map provisions. However Mr Blair made it clear that such a prospect was unlikely in the near future.

- Independent

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