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Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 11:18 GMT
Analysis: Mid-East conference hopes
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Israel wants Palestinians to look beyond Arafat

A Middle East conference called by the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in London in January is at best a modest effort to make progress on a "road map" now being drawn up for the Middle East.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair
The UK wants to forge closer ties with Arab leaders
It is a long way short of the peace conference envisaged by Mr Blair before the end of the year at the Labour Party conference in October.

That proved, as many thought at the time, to be impossibly ambitious.

The meeting also represents a diplomatic defensive effort by Britain to develop closer links with the Arab world at a time when Britain is preparing for possible war against Iraq.

Mr Blair's meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in London can also be seen in that light.

'Same old figures'

Britain is keen that Arab governments see some differences between London and Washington.

The prospect is one of the same old figures with the same old policies leading to the same old problems

However, Mr Assad himself has dismissed the conference, claiming that the idea was to "weaken" Yasser Arafat. "The result will be turbulence in the Middle East," he told reporters.

The conference will discuss reform of Palestinian institutions and Mr Arafat, who was not invited himself, has agreed to send a delegation.

The fact that Mr Arafat has not been invited reflects the reality of his position - Israel would either not let him go or not let him back.

But it also hints at one of the underlying themes - that Palestinian reform should look towards a day when Mr Arafat is not Palestinian leader.

The problem with that approach is that the Palestinians themselves might well decide to keep Mr Arafat as their leader.

And with him in charge on the Palestinian side and with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, likely to win the elections on 28 January, the prospect is one of the same old figures with the same old policies leading to the same old problems.

'Road map'

Sceptics argue that a middle ranking conference about Palestinian reform is one more talking shop which will simply emphasise the problems and not provide the solutions.

The counter view is that sooner or later, though probably later if at all, the two sides will reach exhaustion and will seek a solution, the outlines of which have been apparent for years - land for peace.

If that is so, then the road to peace must always be kept open.

The "road map" is supposed to offer a way through.

It is being drawn up by the so-called Quartet - the US, the EU, Russia and the UN.

Foreign ministers are meeting in Washington on 20 December to discuss how far the mapping has progressed and whether they should publish it before the Israeli elections.

The map is expected to lay down a procedure under which Israelis and Palestinians meet certain reciprocal commitments leading to security for Israel on the one side and a state for the Palestinians on the other by 2005.

Diplomats say that it might not demand a total end to Palestinians violence before the process starts, as that would be unrealistic.

But it would demand an end to violence by the time the process finished.


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17 Dec 02 | Middle East
17 Dec 02 | Politics
16 Dec 02 | Politics
16 Dec 02 | Middle East
15 Dec 02 | Middle East
16 Dec 02 | Middle East
16 Jul 02 | Middle East
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