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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 March, 2005, 20:20 GMT
Foundations but no building yet
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Palestinian police officers in the West Bank city of Ramallah
The summit reached agreement on supporting Palestinian security

In the temporary fortress also known as the QE2 conference centre in London, the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas got his expected promises of support - and gave his expected promises of peace and good governance in return.

The British organisers were pleased enough.

Foreign Office spokesman John Williams, who as a journalist once welcomed the unexpected, showed that he was now a diplomat and praised the planned.

"The talks are going as predicted," he said in a break. "And as long as they're predictable, they're going well."

They went well. Indeed, the communiqué had been written in advance. A kind friend from one of the states in the region handed me a copy by midday. It did not change.

So far so good, therefore. Now come the hard parts - getting Israel and the Palestinian Authority into a position where they can actually negotiate and then getting them to reach an agreement.

Those moments are some way off.

Resurrecting the roadmap

First the commitments entered into, by both sides, will have to be fulfilled.

There will have to be peace and quiet. Israel will then have to withdraw as planned from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. That does not start until July.

A changing of the guard was what this meeting was really about

Then the old roadmap to peace will have to be dusted off.

And finally the old issues - the rocks on which hopes have been dashed before - will emerge again.

What we got in London was a start. "Foundation stones" Tony Blair called them.

But that is all they are. The design of the building also exists, in vague outline. But it has not been agreed in detail. And the detail counts for everything.

Words count

There were also new words. Everyone condemned the suicide bomb in Tel Aviv last week, for example, with Mr Abbas even calling it terrorism. A line about it had been added to the communiqué without dissent.

I noticed that Mr Abbas was accorded the courtesy of being called "president" by the US and UK. Yasser Arafat was usually referred to only as "chairman".

Words matter in diplomacy. They are the signals that governments use to confirm or change policy. When the word "terrorism" is used to describe a Palestinian bomb, you know that something is shifting.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had another useful phrase.

"A state of scattered territories will not work," she said about a future Palestine, in a warning to Israel not to restrict too much of the land it is willing to give up.

She was so pleased with the phrase that she got the Quartet that is supposed to oversee the peace process - the US, the UN, the EU and Russia - to include it in its own statement. Such a commitment by the United States also counts.

Optimism and caution

I was struck by the optimism in the corridors and meeting rooms. Mahmoud Abbas has brought about a change.

Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner, a former Austrian foreign minister and now EU External Affairs commissioner punched the air as she declared to journalists: "This momentum cannot be lost."

SUMMIT AGREEMENTS
EU to assist with establishment of new political institutions
US to set up a security co-ordinating group
World Bank to play crucial role in economic development

The EU does have a right to its say. It has given the Palestinians two billion euros since 1994. There will be more.

But I was also struck by the remarks of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Britain and a former Saudi intelligence chief.

"We have been here before," he said, talking to a couple of reporters with an urbane smile. "We must keep our feet on the ground."

Indeed, anyone who has followed the Middle East peace talks over the years, the generations even, has to keep both feet firmly planted on terra firma.

This was not a negotiating session. The Israelis were not even present, by choice.

The next best thing to an Israeli spokesman there was the Israel Radio London correspondent Jerry Lewis.

He too had words of warning. "This is OK as far as it goes," he said among the rows of laptops in the media room. "This pins the Palestinians down. Now they have to deliver."

Security forces

Perhaps the most important actual agreement to come out of the meeting was the setting up of a multi-nation security group, to be led by the new US security co-coordinator Lt General William Ward. Britain, Egypt and Jordan are going to be among the members.

This group will advise, train and generally help the Palestinians as they slim their security forces down from 13 separate bodies to three.

But the group will also help to do that pinning down - making sure that the Palestinian Authority does get a grip on the militants.

Another agreement was for help in pensioning off old Palestinian security forces. This sounds modest. It is actually quite important because it will help clear the decks of the old guard.

And a changing of the guard was what this meeting was really about.


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