LONDON – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pledged Tuesday to reform the tangled Palestinian security forces — a goal long sought by the international community and considered vital ahead of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
Addressing a conference convened to build on the recent Mideast progress and ensure the Palestinians an infusion of financial aid, Abbas also condemned a recent suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis, warning that "the extremist forces are still intent to destroy any efforts toward peace."
The one-day event, hosted by Britain, brought together international figures, from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan (search) to senior Arab and European figures.
"The most important message is our complete readiness to exert 100 percent effort in the domain of security," Abbas said.
"To that end, we deployed our troops on the ground and we took a final decision concerning the consolidation of the security agencies."
But Abbas offered no details of how the streamlined security apparatus will look.
The international community is eager to see the dozen competing Palestinian security agencies consolidated into three organizations under the control of one government minister who can prevent attacks on Israelis and to end the official corruption and inefficiency that prevailed for years under Yasser Arafat (search).
Rice said Washington was ready to help.
"The Palestinian Authority needs to reform its security institutions in order to fight terrorism and lawlessness effectively," Rice said. "The United States is prepared to work with partners in the region and around the world to realize this essential goal.
Rice said Tuesday that Army Lt. Gen. William Ward (search), designated to oversee security reforms, will soon relocate to the region. Ward, who has been based in Europe, has made one trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since Rice announced his appointment last month.
There are fears that without a more effective Palestinian security apparatus, militant groups could fill a political and security vacuum left by the Israeli withdrawal.
Opening the conference, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the world faced "probably no more pressing political challenge than to move this process forward."
The European Union, which is already providing support for the Palestinian Authority's civilian police, Egypt and Jordan could also be involved.
The conference is not the major international peace gathering that Abbas had hoped for, despite the attendance of Rice — who was to meet Abbas on Tuesday — as well as Annan and a host of European and Arab foreign ministers. Israel, importantly, is not represented.
The Palestinians were hoping the conference would address sensitive issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants — issues that have derailed peace efforts to date.
After intense negotiations with British officials, however, the Palestinian leadership now seems convinced that the conference could prove beneficial, and hopes to secure pledges of more than $500 million.
Abbas also said he hoped for an international conference on implementing the 2003 "road map" peace plan, a blueprint for ending violence and establishing a Palestinian state this year.
The plan calls for an end to Israeli settlement-building and the "dismantling" of Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza — steps that both sides have ignored, while in theory accepting the plan. It also skirts the details of such issues as borders, Jerusalem, and the future of Palestinian refugees.
The so-called Quartet sponsors of the road map — the European Union, United States, Russia and the United Nations — were expected to meet on the sidelines of the conference.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also attending the meeting and are expected to play a vital coordinating role in any new financial aid to the Palestinian areas, which are battered and impoverished after years of fighting a far stronger Israel.
Nigel Roberts, the World Bank's representative in the West Bank and Gaza, said that since the violence erupted the international community has been donating close to $1 billion annually to the Palestinians, a figure roughly double the aid of the preceding years.
Without the significant reforms Abbas is promising, bodies such as the EU, which has donated some $2.65 billion in aid in the past decade, may be reluctant to give more.