Blair Reaches Out to Middle East

Times Staff Writer

British Prime Minister Tony Blair held talks today with Israeli and Palestinian leaders that were notable less for what was said and done than for sending a message of Western wishes to reengage with the Middle East peace process.

Blair, the highest-ranking foreign visitor since the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11, met first with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem. He then traveled to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

As expected, Blair proposed holding an international peace conference in London early next year whose aim would be to shore up the new Palestinian government. Sharon, as was also expected, gave his blessing to the gathering but made it clear Israel had no interest in participating. The meeting is tentatively set for March.

Blair's visit mirrored the easing of tensions between the two sides, but also cast a spotlight on the sharply divergent world views held by Israeli and Palestinian officials.

During Arafat's reign, well-meaning foreign visitors often found themselves becoming the lightning rod for long-standing Israeli and Palestinian quarrels. In the year prior to Arafat's death, Sharon would refuse to see any visiting dignitary who also paid a call on the Palestinian leader. That awkwardness alone was enough to keep many overseas dignitaries away.

In a news conference with Sharon in Jerusalem, Blair echoed the Israeli position that Palestinians must take sweeping measures to dismantle violent groups before there can be any significant new peace effort.

"There is not going to be any successful negotiation or peace without an end to terrorism," Blair said, with the Israeli leader at his side. "The absence of terrorism can then create a situation in which a proper negotiated settlement can take place."

Abbas, who is expected to easily win election to the Palestinian Authority presidency on Jan. 9, has made it clear that he hopes to achieve an accord, at least an informal one, with militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad rather than being forced to carry out what would be an unpopular crackdown against them.

At the news conference, Sharon made a point of pledging allegiance to the "road map" peace plan drafted by the United States, the European Community, Russia and the United Nations. In recent months, that blueprint has taken a back seat to the Israeli leader's initiative to uproot the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip.

Sharon insisted his Gaza pullout plan was not intended as a substitute for the road map, which envisions a series of reciprocal steps by the two sides that would culminate in Palestinian statehood.

"With a full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement, the door will be open for the road map — which will change, I believe, the life of the Israelis and the Palestinians, and change the situation in the region," he said.

Despite relative calm in the wake of Arafat's death, Israel has responded forcefully to mortar attacks against Jewish settlements in Gaza.

Israeli troops staged their second incursion in a week into the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza. Three Palestinians died in the fighting, which ended with an Israeli pullback as this evening evening.

Separately, an Israeli civilian was shot to death near the town of Hebron while working on a separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. The militant group Martyr Yasser Arafat Brigade (formerly known as Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade) claimed responsibility.

Palestinians had hoped Blair's visit might kick off a broader international peace effort that would put Sharon under greater pressure to make concessions. Senior Palestinian officials could not hide their disappointment over the limited nature of the proposed London conference, which is to focus on Palestinian reforms and security.

"The aim is not only to hold an economic conference or to strengthen the Palestinian Authority; these are minor matters," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Korei. "The main aim is to determine whether or not there is a peace process."

Abbas, with Blair standing by, pointedly called on the international community to hold Sharon accountable for the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"We expect from the Israeli side to stop the expansion of settlements," he told reporters.

The visit brought another symbolic disappointment for the Palestinians. They had hoped that Blair would lay a wreath at Arafat's grave, in the battered Ramallah compound where the Palestinian leader spent most of the last three years of his life.

Blair, who is widely seen as President Bush's most trusted foreign ally, publicly hewed to the U.S. view that Arafat was a terrorist and an obstacle to peace.

But the Palestinians felt some gesture of respect for their late leader was required, and in the end, a carefully crafted compromise was reached.

Arriving at the Ramallah compound, Blair paused briefly near Arafat's tomb, nodded toward it, and was silent for a moment. Then he went into the headquarters building for his meetings.

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