Wed, Dec 22, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Sharon refuses to attend London talks

BACKTRACKING The Israeli prime minister dismissed earlier statements, saying he ruled out participation in any multinational conference that touched on his nation's security


British Prime Minister Tony Blair's plan for a Middle East conference was rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, reversing last week's positive statements from his government about attending.

In a meeting with Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda on Monday, Sharon said: "We will not participate, but we understand the importance [of the conference]."

"We do not consider this event to be a political conference, and that is what we were told. There is an important opportunity here to solve economic problems and the issue of reform. Regarding issues of security, discussions will be only with Israel," Sharon said.

Sharon ruled out Israeli participation in any multinational conference that touched on the nation's security. Palestinians have been pressing for a broader conference to revive stalled peace moves, but the UK says it wants to focus on building up Palestinian institutional and security capabilities in anticipation of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

"This meeting [the proposed conference] is about Palestine and practical reforms within Palestine," Blair's official spokesman said on Monday.

"This has never been conceived of as a major peace conference," said a Foreign Office spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Blair has said that reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a foreign policy priority. Diplomatic moves have intensified following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was shunned by Israel and the US.

Israeli officials have said they expected Blair to visit this week and also meet with Palestinian officials. Blair's office refused to comment on any travel plans.

Israel had said last week that it was prepared to attend a London conference, which officials hoped would focus on ending violence and promoting Palestinian reforms.

Palestinian officials want to take up final status issues like Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and borders -- topics that have snagged previous negotiations.

"We want to focus on reviving the peace process and resuming permanent status negotiations," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said on Monday.

US President George W. Bush on Monday repeated his belief that the crucial next step in the Middle East is to build a democratic state in Palestine.

"And I appreciate the fact that Prime Minister Tony Blair is willing to help that process by holding a conference with Palestinians that will help develop the state," Bush told a news conference in Washington.

The proposal for a conference has been vague about an agenda and a date. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said a conference is possible and would concentrate on practical arrangements for the aftermath of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, set for next summer.

To assist in building up Palestinian security forces, the UK announced on Monday that it was giving ?450,000 (US$875,000) worth of bomb detection and disposal equipment to the Palestinian Authority.

The equipment "will allow the collection of Palestinian munitions and explosive ordnance devices thus indicating the serious intent of the Palestinian Police to take these items out of circulation in compliance with the [Middle East peace] road map," the Ministry of Defense said.

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