TEL AVIV, Israel – British Prime Minister Tony Blair's (search) Mideast peace push suffered a setback on the eve of his visit when Israel said it would not attend the Mideast conference he's proposing, while Jewish settler leaders pledged to resist Israel's own plan to remove settlements from Gaza (search) and the West Bank.
Blair was due Tuesday for talks in the West Bank and Israel to promote a resumption of negotiations, the highest level visitor since the death of Yasser Arafat (search), reflecting optimism that a new Palestinian leadership might be more amenable to an agreement.
Britain did not join Israel and the United States in a boycott of Arafat because of charges that he was involved in Palestinian terrorism, but the deep freeze that resulted from the shunning of Arafat stalled all Mideast initiatives.
Even before the invitations go out to a London Mideast conference, however, Israel and the Palestinians disagreed strongly over its purpose, and Israel decided not to attend.
The Palestinians want a high-level conference that would push negotiations on the touchy issues that have stymied peace efforts in the past — Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, borders and Palestinian refugees.
The Israelis say the subject should be much more limited — reforms in the Palestinian administration, which they criticized for a lack of accountability, and failure of security forces to crack down on militant groups.
In London, the British Foreign Office appeared to back Sharon. "This meeting is about Palestine and practical reforms within Palestine," it said. No date has been set.
"This has never been conceived of as a major peace conference," said a Foreign Office spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even so, Sharon said Monday that Israel won't send a delegation. "We will not participate, but we understand its importance," Sharon said. He felt Israel's presence would automatically turn the meeting into a political conference about the outstanding negotiating issues.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called Israel's decision "unfortunate."
President Bush was lukewarm about the conference idea in remarks Monday and did not pledge to send a U.S. delegation.
Blair is to meet in the West Bank city of Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's longtime deputy, who is the leading candidate to replace him in a Jan. 9 election. Abbas is considered a pragmatist who has spoken out against Palestinian violence.
Sharon prefers to concentrate on his plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the West Bank next summer.
On Monday, as Sharon moved to shore up his shaky government to provide a comfortable Cabinet majority in favor of the plan, settler leaders called for resistance, even if it means thousands going to jail.
The moderate opposition Labor Party, strongly in favor of the pullout plan, scheduled meetings of its institutions on Tuesday to approve entering Sharon's coalition, and it a new, pro-pullout government was expected to take office next week.
With their political options dwindling, leaders of the Yesha Settlers Council endorsed a call by a prominent leader, Pinchas Wallerstein, to resist the withdrawal. In a message distributed to settlers and repeated in a radio interview Monday, Wallerstein said he is ready to go to prison for his beliefs.
It was the first time settler leaders have publicly advocated breaking the law.
"The Yesha council stands behind Pinchas Wallerstein," council head Bentsi Lieberman said at a news conference. "The proposal to expel Jews from their homes is an immoral decision and a breach of human rights." Yesha is a Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the biblical names of the territories.
Lieberman said the settlers oppose violence and would not use force against soldiers involved in the evacuation.
Outside, small groups of settler activists and opponents squared off. The settlers' opponents held torches in the air, along with signs saying "Peace Yes, Occupation No." The settlers danced around their opponents, holding signs saying, "We're all Pinchas."
Sharon said Wallerstein's statement was "harsh." Sharon, who for decades was the leading patron of the settlers, said he understands their pain, but they must not break the law.
Others, including President Moshe Katsav, worried that resistance could turn violent.