"The sense of expectation is palpable"

Palestinian leader Abbas warns at a meeting in London that without direct talks with Israel the fragile peace could be broken.

By Ewen MacAskill
Published March 2, 2005 1:53PM (EST)

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas challenged Israel Tuesday to move to "serious" negotiations as a matter of urgency and warned that without political progress there could be a return to violence. Addressing Tony Blair's international meeting in London, Abbas promised "to exert 100 percent effort in the domain of security" to try to prevent attacks such as Feb. 25's suicide bomb in Tel Aviv in which five people died, but warned that "security is vulnerable to regression and even collapse if it is not protected by a serious political process between us and the Israelis."

Although Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh last month, the Israeli government is resisting wider talks. Abbas wants direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the issues that need to be resolved in order to secure a final peace deal, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem and Israeli settlers.

The one-day conference in London, which was confined to discussion about reform of the Palestinian Authority and excluded these wider issues, could turn out to be a staging post on the way to direct negotiations. The Israelis were not present Tuesday. Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would try to find the perpetrators of last Friday's attack but, in a comment that will infuriate Israelis, noted that Israel was responsible for security in the part of the West Bank the suicide bomber originated from.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, responding to the conference, said: "I am very sorry the Palestinian leadership is still hesitating over its need to fight terror. It has to be clear that as long as they don't take the strategic decision to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, we cannot truly advance towards peace."

But Abbas said he expected the London meeting "will support and lead to the convening of the international conference called for in the road map, to discuss, based on international legitimacy, the resolution of all permanent status issues including: refugees, Jerusalem, borders, water and settlements, as well as all other issues pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict."

The road map is a peace agreement drafted two years ago by the "quartet" of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. Under it, after a series of measures have been implemented, including Palestinian reforms, a conference would be held to launch negotiations on a final peace deal. A further meeting would then complete the deal.

The quartet met Tuesday on the sidelines of the London conference. The group called for "immediate action by the Palestinian Authority to apprehend and bring to justice the perpetrators" of the Tel Aviv suicide bombing. But it also had a warning for the Israelis. It said a Palestinian state was viable only if it had contiguous territory and was not broken up into cantonments by the presence of large Israeli settlements. "A state of scattered territories will not work," the group said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who held a separate meeting with Abbas, echoed this. "Israel must also take no action that prejudices a final settlement and must help ensure that a new Palestinian state is truly viable. A state of scattered territories will not work," she said.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the conference that the two-state solution remained the basis for a lasting and just peace. "Therefore, we view with concern the ongoing settlement policy in the West Bank," he said. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said there had been many positive developments recently. "This is a moment of promise and potential. The sense of expectation is palpable," he said.

The participants issued a 15-page communiqué, the most important part of which was the creation of a U.S.-led international team, including Britain, to help the Palestinians reform their security services. The team is to be led by Lt. Gen. William Ward, the U.S. security coordinator for the region. This sign of greater U.S. involvement contrasted with George W. Bush's first-term resistance to calls for Washington to broker a peace agreement.

The European Union pledged $330 million over the next year to help the Palestinians rebuild their economy, and the United States promised $350 million. The U.K. raised its contribution from 20 million to 30 million pounds.

Ewen MacAskill

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