- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday offered to host a one-day Middle East conference in the new year to help rehabilitate the battered Palestinian Authority, encourage reform and serve as a bridge to renewed peace talks, stalled by four years of violence.

Mr. Blair, the highest-ranking visitor to the West Bank since Yasser Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, said a growing sense of hope must now be translated into action, while endorsing Israel’s condition for peace talks — an end to Palestinian attacks — and the Palestinian goal of an independent state.

Yesterday was the first time Mr. Blair talked in public about his proposed London conference, considerably scaling down the expectations of many who expected a full-blown British Middle East peace push.

Instead, Mr. Blair said, the conference would be a one-day affair in March dealing only with reforms in the Palestinian administration and additional aid.

He said it would serve as a “bridge to the road map,” the stalled international peace plan leading to a Palestinian state.

Calling a conference to discuss substantive issues “is not for me to undertake,” he said.

Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he welcomed the idea of the conference, although the Palestinians initially hoped for a broader agenda, including key disputes with Israel over Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a Palestinian state.

Although the scaled-down conference fits Israel’s wishes, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his country would not attend.

“Since the subject deals only with Palestinian issues,” Mr. Sharon said after meeting with Mr. Blair, “together we reached the conclusion that there is no need for Israeli participation.”

Mr. Abbas, who is running to replace Mr. Arafat in Jan. 9 elections, said the Palestinians are eager to resume talks with Israel. “We are very keen and very concerned about catching up on the lost time,” he said in reference to the deadlock during more than four years of fighting.

Despite Mr. Blair’s peace push, violence persisted yesterday.

Israeli troops entered the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza after midnight for the second time in a week, trying to stop militants from firing rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli settlements and army bases.

As Israeli bulldozers flattened damaged structures, soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinians, killing three, including two gunmen, Palestinian security officials said.

After nightfall, Palestinians said the Israelis were pulling out of the camp. The military said a redeployment was in progress.

Near the West Bank city of Hebron, an Israeli civilian working on the West Bank separation barrier was fatally shot by Palestinians. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group affiliated with the mainstream Fatah movement, took responsibility.

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