Blair's Middle East peace talks

International conferences are too frequently disappointing occasions. They are often moments either for political grandstanding or for formally agreeing what has actually been negotiated elsewhere. Conferences that relate to the &to=http:// ' target=_blank>Middle East have a particularly depressing record.

Even so, &to=http:// ' target=_blank>Tony Blair is right to press ahead with the meeting that he plans to host in London next year. His talks with Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem and Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah yesterday suggest this gathering could be more successful that most, provided that it sticks to a narrow and practical agenda and expectations are lowered to a plausible level.

Mr Blair has said that this gathering would concentrate on how to strengthen the administrative machinery of the Palestinian Authority, enhance its security forces and bolster financial institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, wrote The Times.

According to the Independent, Mr Blair got his conference. Exactly as he had hoped, a combination of effective British diplomacy and the explicit backing of the US ensured that Mr Sharon both described the event as "very important" and, equally welcome to the British, made clear that in view of its Palestinian focus, Israel would not need to be there.

Mr Abbas endorsed the proposal with enthusiasm, avoiding echoes of previous calls by Palestinian officials for the conference to be widened into a general summit on the Middle East which would itself discuss the terms of a final status settlement to end the conflict. Mr Abbas gets what this conference is about, and he is going along with it.

So, too, Mr Blair, who secured the verbal assurances he had been seeking that both sides envisage a return to the road map if the conditions are met. In particular, Mr Sharon, who had once pronounced the road map all but dead, now promised that he would return to its three stages if his preconditions are fulfilled.

Earlier, at a press conference in Jerusalem with Mr Blair, the Israeli prime minister struck an upbeat note, saying that there was now a genuine chance of progress.

Mr Sharon denied that he intended to use his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including its 7,000 settlers, was a manoeuvre to renege on the &to=http:// ' target=_blank>Road Map, which envisages the creation of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He said: "The reason I initiated the disengagement process was because I did not have a partner but, once Yasser Arafat left us, I believed that there was a window of opportunity and I am not going to miss it."

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