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Last Updated: Monday, 28 February, 2005, 15:13 GMT
Meeting to bolster Palestinian leadership
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The "meeting to support the Palestinian Authority" in London on Tuesday, as it is being called officially, is not a peace conference but is designed to help pave the way towards one.

Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president
Abbas was prevailed upon to attend as a way to bolster his leadership
The meeting will concentrate on providing security, political and economic help for the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who will attend.

It is expected to set up a Security Working Group led by the United States, in which a number of countries, including Britain, will participate.

This group, under the chairmanship of the recently appointed US security co-ordinator General William Ward, will help the Palestinians with finance and training for their security forces.

The idea is that the current maze of such forces should be reduced to three - one for internal security, a second to control borders and a third for external intelligence.

Meeting not conference

The importance of this meeting - and the word "meeting" is being used in preference to "conference" as a way of keeping expectations low - should not be overstated. Peace in the Middle East will not depend on meetings in far-off capitals.

We hope to agree on a practical work plan to enable the Palestinians to meet their commitments and to give Israel confidence
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw

Already there is a cloud over it following the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last Friday, believed to have been carried out by the small rejectionist group Islamic Jihad.

The Israelis are demanding that Mr Abbas takes action.

If he fails to satisfy Israeli concerns, the way to negotiations will be blocked again.

On the other hand, Mr Abbas now has an opportunity to show that he will not tolerate such attacks. He has already described the Tel Aviv bomb as "sabotage."

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are pointing the finger at Syria which has allowed Islamic Jihad to operate in its territory. The mutual accusations against a third party could enable Israel and the Palestinians to steer their way through the aftermath of the bomb. The way might then become clearer.

The London meeting could be a help.

Work plan

"We hope to agree on a practical work plan to enable the Palestinians to meet their commitments and to give Israel confidence," said the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Scene from the bombing
The London meeting takes place in the shadow of a recent suicide bombing
"We hope for practical improvements which will enable a peace conference to be held."

The meeting has an impressive cast of characters, from the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In all, 23 states and 6 international organisations will be represented.

Israel, however, will not be there. It sees the meeting primarily as a way of bringing pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and it has insisted there should be no hint of any substantive negotiations.

It has ensured that the communiqué will not deal with any of the final status issues which are reserved for direct negotiations between the parties under the roadmap plan for peace.

Structure of meeting

The meeting will be in three parts.

First Mr Abbas will outline what steps he is taking to re-organise the Palestinian Authority.

Second, the international community will set out what help it proposes to give him.

And third, the follow-up mechanisms will be agreed. The Security Working Group is one of these. Another is a role for the World Bank to oversee financial help. It is hoped that in due course a donor conference will be held.

It took a bit of persuading to get Mr Abbas to attend. He was worried that the meeting would simply load further responsibilities on the Palestinians without placing similar burdens on the Israelis.

But he was finally convinced that he had to use every opportunity to entrench his authority.

Palestinian hopes

Even so, he has political expectations as well. "The London meeting must lead to the holding of an international conference called for in the roadmap to relaunch final status negotiations and a credible peace process," he said in an interview with the British newspaper The Independent.

The meeting had it origins last summer when the British government was casting around to find ways of getting movement in the peace process and of heading off complaints that Tony Blair was powerless to get President Bush to take a lead.

The death of Yasser Arafat and the re-engagement of Mr Bush have helped provide the meeting with greater relevance.

An earlier British attempt in 2003 ended in near-farce when Israel prevented the Palestinians from getting to London and they had to contribute by video conferencing instead.

This time, the atmosphere is quite different.


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