Blair makes bid to restore Middle East road map

British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced plans Wednesday for a London conference to promote Palestinian reform.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has a clear goal for his foray into Middle East peacemaking: reviving the international peace blueprint known as the road map.

But Mr. Blair is limited by a lack of British clout in a US-dominated arena, and a possible divergence of long-term goals with Israel and Washington.

The initiative will take form in an international conference on Palestinian reform scheduled to take place in London early next year. Britain hopes it will be attended by the Palestinian Authority, European Union, United States, Russia, United Nations, and several Arab countries.

The aim, as Blair spelled out during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Wednesday, is to make sure Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year becomes a step toward restoring the international peace blueprint known as the road map, which calls for the emergence of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Concern over Israeli intentions toward the road map has mounted since remarks two months ago by senior Sharon aide Dov Weisglass that the Gaza withdrawal is aimed at freezing the peace process.

Mr. Weisglass last week reversed himself and said the withdrawal could be a step toward an independent Palestinian state.

"The idea is that when disengagement happens we will be able to use the opportunity to ensure we can make progress to get back to the road map," Blair said.

"The point is that unless there is a viable [Palestinian] partner in terms of institutions for democracy, institutions necessary for a proper economy, and measures on security to give Israel the confidence it requires, we are never going to get back into the road map and everything will become academic," Mr. Blair said. The London conference, he says, is aimed at making headway on all three fronts.

The US is backing the conference out of deference to its closest ally, but seems thus far to not be embracing it very closely.

"I expect we will be associated with this," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of the conference. according to the Associated Press. "But how exactly it is going to materialize and what it is going to be, I really think you have to let the British answer."

Analysts say Blair's motives for moving on the Israeli-Palestinian front are varied, including concern that Washington will remain aloof from peacemaking, domestic political calculations, and a perception that resolving grievances related to the Palestinian issue is essential for overall strategic aims.

"I think Blair has a genuine belief that without a genuine resolution of the conflict you can only make so much progress in the war on terrorism and on [regional] reform," says Rosemary Hollis, Middle East director at London's Chatham House.

The domestic fuel for Britain taking a high-profile role are parliamentary elections expected during 2005, analysts say.

Blair's Labour party is expected to win, but Blair is seen as increasingly vulnerable to criticism over Iraq and fears the party will lose ground, particularly in constituencies with large Muslim populations, says Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor for The Times of London. "He wants to be able to show the electorate something good is coming out of the Middle East," Mr. Beeston says.

Israel, for its part, is welcoming Britain's role, provided it is limited to facilitating Palestinian reform and does not impinge on American primacy.

"Britain can bring some value added here," says Gideon Meir, a deputy director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry.

Israel will not be attending the London conference, but is supporting its goals, Sharon said. "Because the conference deals only with the Palestinians, we held consultations with the British and arrived at the conclusion that there is no reason for Israeli participation."

Israel is stressing that from its viewpoint, the only way peace negotiations can restart is if there is a complete halt to "terrorism, violence and incitement," in Sharon's words. "Israel is committed to the road map but the Palestinians have to do their part," Sharon said.

Blair also put the burden for now on the Palestinians. "The absence of terror can create a situation where a proper negotiating environment can take place," he said.

In Ms. Hollis's view, Britain is more interested in advancing toward a viable Palestinian state than the US, but she says Blair lacks leverage over Washington.

Bernard Reich, a political scientist at George Washington University, says the US, like Britain, is interested in a two-state solution, but believes it is unwise now to pressure Sharon. "Britain is more anxious to show some movement and quickly," he says.

In the view of Palestinian analyst Hani Masri, Britain is playing into what he says is Sharon's goal of consolidating Israel's hold in the West Bank and foreclosing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

"How can you talk about building democracy without talking about ending occupation?" he asks. "The PA will go to this conference, but unhappily and without any expectations," he says.

The official PA stance was more positive. "We appreciate your efforts and your step in holding a conference next year. It is an important chance for reform, security and economic reconstruction and also progress to the road map," PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas told Blair.

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