Blair meets Palestinian leader

Phil Hazlewood


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as he continues a trip aimed at breathing new life into the dormant Middle East peace process and bolstering a UN-brokered ceasefire in Lebanon.

A day after extracting a pledge in Jerusalem from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to meet the Palestinian leader without preconditions, Blair arrived in the West Bank town of Ramallah for his meeting with Abbas.

The two leaders shook hands on a red carpet outside the government compound in Ramallah and went inside for talks. They were due to hold a press conference later Sunday.

"There is a tremendous suffering amongst the Palestinian people as a result of the inability to make progress" in the peace talks, Blair said during a joint press conference with Olmert late Saturday.

"It is very important to see what we can do to re-energize this process," he said.

But the embattled Blair, who last week announced that he would stand down in the next 12 months, received a cool reception on the streets of Ramallah, where a demonstration has been called against his visit by groups who accuse him of pro-Israeli "bias."

Blair's office has already said his Middle East trip is unlikely to see any real breakthrough in the peace process, but that it is important to help restart talks.

Olmert told Blair late Saturday that he was ready to meet Abbas -- whom he last saw in an informal meeting in Jordan on June 23 -- without preconditions, but did not set a date.

"I am ready to work closely with the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas, to implement the road map," Olmert said referring to a largely moribund internationally drafted peace blueprint.

"I intend to meet with chairman Abbas in order to make real progress on outstanding issues on our agenda. I have no preconditions or prerequisites for such a meeting," Olmert said after brief talks with the British premier at his Jerusalem residence.

Blair urged both sides to return to the roadmap, which has made next to no progress since it was launched in 2003.

"The only agreement that's ever going to stick... is an agreement where people resolve their differences through politics and not through violence," he said.

"We have a plan to get there -- the roadmap. We have to find a means of getting back to it," he said.

Drafted by the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, the roadmap sets out a series of steps necessary to establish a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

The Israeli government cut nearly all contacts with the Palestinians after the radical Islamist movement Hamas formed a government in March following its upset January parliamentary election victory.

The European Union and the United States froze all direct financial aid to the Palestinian government, demanding that Hamas renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and agree to abide by past agreements.

On Saturday, prime minister Ismail Haniya wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper that by supporting boycotts and sanctions against his Hamas movement Blair had caused "untold hurt" to the Palestinians.

The letter came two days after a group of Palestinian intellectuals and political groups declared Blair persona non grata in the Palestinian territories, accusing him of "bias" on the Palestinian question.

Prior to his meeting with Abbas, Blair met with senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem and with families of Israeli soldiers seized by militants in Gaza and Lebanon.

On Monday he is due to travel on to Beirut.

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