Abbas Hopeful for Peace With Israel

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Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said Wednesday he would take advantage of a "new era of peace and hope" to prove to Israel he is serious about implementing the reforms needed to resume peace talks and bring about Palestinian statehood.

Ending his first visit to western Europe since his election in January, Abbas said he was satisfied with the strong backing shown by the European Union and the world community.

"Now we are talking about a new era of peace and hope," Abbas told reporters at EU headquarters. "I hope this support will continue. ... Let's be optimistic."

In contrast to Yasser Arafat (search), who was shunned by Israel and the United States in recent years, Abbas is embraced as a moderate who genuinely wants to end the fighting that broke out in 2000, derailing a peace effort that had appeared close to establishing a Palestinian state.

The current Israeli government of Ariel Sharon (search) seems unlikely to repeat the far-reaching territorial offers that were on the table then, and trust between the two peoples has eroded significantly.

Still, Abbas has called for peace talks to resume, and Israel is proceeding with plans to pull all troops and settlers out of Gaza and part of the West Bank in coming months — a bold move which, coinciding with the change at the Palestinian helm, has yielded a marked improvement in atmosphere.

That hopefulness was evident Tuesday in London, where Abbas promised to reform the unwieldy Palestinian security apparatus to effectively clamp down on anti-Israel violence, and to end the corruption and inefficiency that have angered Palestinians and cost the Palestinian Authority considerable credibility abroad.

Although he has made the pledge before, the declaration, in front of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (search) and other top officials, was viewed as significant.

And while the event was not billed as a "pledging conference," the Palestinians said they emerged with solid commitments for at least $1.2 billion in aid for 2005, easily exceeding last year's total foreign aid even before they tap Arab nations in coming weeks.

In addition, the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations — convened on the sidelines and reaffirmed a commitment to the 2003 "road map" peace blueprint that calls for a Palestinian state by the end of this year.

Abbas was to stop in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on Thursday for a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak to fill him in on his meetings in Europe, Israel's Army Radio reported.

On Wednesday, Abbas met with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief.

While praising Abbas publicly, officials here remained concerned that the new Palestinian leader needs to do more to rein in militants.

Controlling the militants is a key problem for Abbas, especially training and paying for a police force whose authority various armed groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will respect.

Solana urged Abbas to control the militants "so the dream (of statehood) is realized."

Abbas said he would use part of the aid he was promised to reform and streamline Palestinian security forces, reducing their number from a dozen separate forces to perhaps three branches, and putting them under the control of a single Cabinet minister.

Abbas made clear to EU officials that he also expected support to get Israel back to the negotiating table. Abbas said he wanted Palestinian statehood "as soon as possible."

He said he hoped the EU would continue to provide funding for the rebuilding of key infrastructure projects, including schools, bridges, roads and seaports, some of which were destroyed in fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants over the past four years.

Barroso said any new aid — the EU is already providing some $330 million in funding this year — would be dependent on guarantees by the Israelis that new projects would no longer be targeted.

"We are of course very disappointed, to put it mildly, to see that some concrete support that we have been giving with taxpayers' money to help the Palestinian people are destroyed," Barroso said.