RAMALLAH, West Bank – British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) offered Wednesday to host a one-day Mideast conference in the new year to help rehabilitate the battered Palestinian Authority (search), encourage reform and serve as a bridge to renewed peace talks, stalled by four years of violence.
Blair, the highest-ranking visitor to the West Bank since Yasser Arafat's (search) death on Nov. 11, said a growing sense of hope must now be translated into action, while endorsing Israel's precondition for peace talks — an end to Palestinian attacks — and the Palestinian goal of an independent state.
Wednesday was the first time Blair talked in public about his proposed London conference, considerably scaling down the expectations of many who expected a full-blown British Middle East peace push.
Instead, Blair said, the conference would be a one-day affair in March dealing only with reforms in the Palestinian administration and additional aid. He said it would serve as a "bridge to the road map," the stalled international peace plan leading to a Palestinian state, but calling a conference to discuss substantive issues "is not for me to undertake."
Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said he welcomed the idea of the conference, although the Palestinians initially hoped for a broader agenda, including key disputes with Israel over Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a Palestinian state.
Despite Blair's peace push, violence persisted Wednesday.
Israeli troops entered the Khan Younis (search) refugee camp in southern Gaza after midnight for the second time in a week, trying to stop militants from firing rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli settlements and army bases.
As Israeli bulldozers flattened damaged structures, soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinians, killing three, including two gunmen, Palestinian security officials said.
After nightfall, Palestinians said the Israelis were pulling out of the camp. The military said a redeployment was in progress.
Near the West Bank city of Hebron, an Israeli civilian working on the West Bank separation barrier was shot and killed by Palestinians. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group affiliated with the mainstream Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.
At a joint news conference in Ramallah with Abbas, Blair said both Israelis and Palestinians understand the need for security.
"We have to have a situation where everything that can be done is being done to stop terrorism and violence," he said, offering British help. Abbas replied that security was essential for both sides.
In a BBC interview, Blair amplified that point. "There is absolutely no sympathy left in the international community for people who are ambivalent about terrorism," he said. "On the other hand, there is complete sympathy for the desire of the Palestinians for their own state."
Although the scaled-down conference fits Israel's wishes, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said his country would not attend. "Since the subject deals only with Palestinian issues," Sharon said after meeting Blair, "together we reached the conclusion that there is no need for Israeli participation."
Abbas, who is running to replace Arafat in Jan. 9 elections, said the Palestinians are eager to resume talks with Israel. "We are very keen and very concerned about catching up on the lost time," he said, referring to the deadlock during more than four years of fighting.
The international community has long pushed for Palestinian reform, but made no inroads while Arafat was alive. Abbas has promised to make changes, including streamlining the unwieldy security services.
Before meeting Abbas, Blair briefly paid his respects at Arafat's tomb in the courtyard of the late Palestinian leader's headquarters in Ramallah. Blair walked toward the grave, nodded slightly and then walked on. The Palestinians had hoped Blair would lay a wreath.
After seeing Sharon, Blair said, "There is not going to be any successful negotiation or peace without an end to terrorism," echoing the Israeli position.
Sharon said if there is a "full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement, the door will be open for the 'road map.'"
But so far the Palestinians have made no moves to stop the attacks, he said.
"I understand there are elections now ... but they are not doing even the slightest effort," he said in English in his first openly critical remarks about Abbas since Arafat's death.