- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

The Bush administration has tentatively backed Britain’s plans for an international Middle East peace conference in London early next year, according to a senior State Department official.

President Bush agreed in principle with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan for the peace conference during their meeting last month, the official said. The conference would follow the Palestinian leadership elections Jan. 9 to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat, who died last month.

Mr. Blair is expected to discuss the idea with Israeli and Palestinian leaders when he visits the Middle East this month, according to the London Daily Telegraph. The conference likely would be scheduled for late January or early February, and foreign ministers likely would be invited.

David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said his government is open to peace talks.

“We would be more than happy to look at what the British would like to raise, but we haven’t seen anything official yet,” Mr. Siegel said.

Since winning re-election, Mr. Bush has indicated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ranks high on his second-term agenda. Some also see Washington’s renewed interest in the Middle East peace process as an effort to mend trans-Atlantic relations strained over the war in Iraq. Preparations for the conference have dominated recent foreign policy discussions between the United States and Britain, the Daily Telegraph reported, citing diplomatic sources.

The conference, however, is likely to fail if Palestinians elect popular jailed activist Marwan Barghouti instead of moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who has the backing of the United States.

“If Barghouti is elected, there will be no conference. It would be the wrong signal to send to the Israeli electorate,” an Israeli source told the Daily Telegraph.

In an interview with London’s Independent newspaper, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw emphasized that the conference would be aimed at helping the new Palestinian leadership resume control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“The meeting we have in mind … would be a more discreet meeting to do with the day after in Gaza,” Mr. Straw said.

This contrasts sharply with the massive 1991 Madrid conference that helped mobilize the international community to try to broker a peace deal. That conference led to the Oslo accords, which have been shelved the past four years in the wake of renewed violence.

The London conference would focus on “practical issues,” including rebuilding Palestinian security services and establishing financial support for Palestinians after Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza next year, the Daily Telegraph reported.

When asked about Mr. Blair’s idea for an international peace conference last month, Mr. Bush emphasized that it must have a chance of achieving measurable results to win his support.

“I’m all for conferences, just so long as the conferences produce something. And we had a long discussion about whether or not a conference could produce a viable strategy that we could then use as a go-by for our own obligations, as well as the obligations for the Palestinians for them to have their own state. And the answer is, if that conference will do that, you bet I’m a big supporter.”

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