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Blair Talks With Palestinian President Abbas

"Window of opportunity" for Middle East peace talks - PM

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he is ready to meet with his Israeli counterpart "without preconditions", following talks with Tony Blair.

Mr Abbas' announcement comes a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also said he was prepared for talks.

In a press conference, Mr Blair stressed the importance of the Palestinians forming a government of national unity that "offers the possibility of re-engagement by the international community."

There was now a "window of opportunity" for both sides to engage in talks, he told journalists.

On the second day of his trip to the Middle East, the PM said:

"The reason for my visit here is... the suffering of the Palestinian people, not just the deaths and in the injuries, but the economic deprivation and the poverty that now exists.

"The question very simply is how do we manage to change this situation and restore momentum to a process that leads...to a situation where children can grow up here with some hope of prosperity and peace for the future."

On Saturday, the PM held talks with Mr Olmert.

The Israeli leader said he intended to meet President Abbas "in order to make real progress on the outstanding issues on our mutual agenda."

Read the Abbas press conference transcript

President Abbas:

I am pleased to welcome Prime Minister Tony Blair for his visit to Palestine at this hard time ...[inaudible]... continuous events and complicated events. I would like personally to present you, Mr Prime Minister and the UK government, with thanks for your efforts to resolve the Palestinian question, to find just resolution for that question. We have today conducted important talks. We have discussed the grave situation in the Palestinian territories area as a whole and discussed also the means to get out of this crisis. We have stressed that Israeli measures should be stopped, and aggression should be stopped, assassinations and incursions should be stopped, closures and collective punishment by Israeli forces should be stopped, economic sanctions should be stopped, crossing closures should be stopped and all the members of the Palestinian government and MPs should be released, more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, they should stop settlement expansion and the building of the wall and the Israeli measures in East Jerusalem, and the stopping of thousands of prayers from reaching their mosques and churches for their prayers. I also ...[inaudible]... to join efforts to form a national unity government based on a programme that can attract international support, end the current crisis and achieve calm that goes along between the Israeli and Palestinian sides. It should end the issue of the soldier in Gaza and the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.

I will go to Gaza today to continue my deliberations on forming a national unity government, it is necessary now to achieve this during the next few coming days in light of the grave internal crisis the Palestinians are living in now, the Palestinian case is not doing very well in the international arena. I am very confident that all ...[inaudible]...take responsibility to benefit from the international atmosphere. In this regard I have discussed with Mr Prime Minister it is necessary to make more effort, Arab and international effort, to reach a comprehensive resolution, a just resolution based on a two state solution and to end the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 according to the relevant international resolution and Arab initiative.

I have also stressed that it is time now to stop the suffering of the Palestinian people and the historical injustice. The Palestinians should live in security and peace, and Palestinian mothers should also live in dignity in their independent state, their secure state. In the last few weeks 250 Palestinians were killed, were murdered, including 44 children. 165,000 employees have ...[inaudible]... salaries for six months, thousands of Palestinian workers attend their work places, the ground situation is very bad and poverty has reached high levels.

On a different track we do our best efforts both at the Arab and international levels. We urge the UN Security Council to find an efficient mechanism to bring back both parties to the negotiating table. Security in the Middle East can only be achieved when all rights are brought back to the Palestinian people, the international resolutions are achieved and the Palestinian state is also established, a sovereign state with its capital in East Jerusalem, and the issue of the refugees is resolved. We stress today our immediate readiness to start negotiations that will end the crisis, the current conflict, to stop the situation in this area. And I am ready to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, without preconditions. We are ready to prepare for this meeting.

So Prime Minister I reiterate my thanks to you and the UK government and we are sure that you will do your best efforts with the two parties to achieve peace in our region.

Tony Blair:

First of all thank you Mr President to you and to your colleagues for your kind welcome of me here today. And the reason for my visit here is precisely what you say, the suffering of the Palestinian people, not just the deaths and the injuries but the economic deprivation and the poverty that now exists in Palestine. And the question very simply is how do we manage to change this situation and restore momentum to a process that leads, as you rightly said in your vision of the future at the end, to a situation where children can grow up here with some hope of prosperity and peace for the future.

We must obviously recommit ourselves again to the two state solution and that is the position of the international community, it is important that it remains so, and to the road map obviously as the means of getting there. But as we know, for the past months the situation has gone backwards and not forwards, so the question is how do we re-energise this process, how do we get it moving forward again? And I, like you, do believe there is a window of opportunity here, even though it may seem very bleak, nonetheless I think there is such a window of opportunity.

First of all can I welcome very much what you said about your attempts to form a government of national unity. I believe that is important, I believe that such a government, based on the Quartet requirements, does offer the possibility of re-engagement by the international community and I would like to say so far as I am concerned that if such a government is formed, then I believe it is right that the international community deal with such a government.

Secondly, I think it is very welcome that you, like Prime Minister Olmert yesterday, have said that you want to meet and meet without prior conditions, and I think that is important because one part of normalising, or getting back to a more normal situation is that there are regular meetings between yourself and the Prime Minister. And the purpose of everything of course is to get to the point where we have a political process in place that allows us to deal with the issues to do with economic reconstruction, to do with institutions, to do with security, and also to make sure that as you say the rights of the Palestinian people to a decent and full life are properly respected.

So that is what we all wish to see and I would like to say to you, as I indicated to you at our meeting, that I hope I am able to return to this region again and so far as I am concerned this issue, which I believe passionately in, will be as important as any other priority for me in the time that remains for me in office. So I think for all of those reasons, though the circumstances are difficult at this present time, nonetheless I think this is a moment that we have to try and seize in order to mobilise the international community, move this process forward and do so on the basis of justice and fairness for all parties concerned. And I recommit to you my energy and dedication and best endeavours to achieve that.

Question:

You have said that you will go to Gaza and the forming of a national unity government will be in the next few days. Will you go into Gaza as a declaration for the forming of this government? And a question for Mr Blair, the PA is calling for an international conference for peace and people are calling for the deployment of international forces, is the UK supporting this suggestion?

President Abbas:

Thank you very much. First of all I would like to appreciate what the Prime Minister Tony Blair said about his intention to get back here to the region again and to follow up on the work. This indicates that he is really concerned and shows the concern of the UK government on the Palestinian question. That is why we would like to thank the Prime Minister for this initiative. The question now, we have at hand the issue of the National Palestinian government, and I am going to Gaza today to follow up the efforts to form this national unity government. I can't say that we can end this issue on my visit to Gaza, but we are really making our best efforts to form a national unity government that will end the siege imposed on the Palestinian people and will end the suffering of these people.

Tony Blair:

In response to your question about international conferences or international peacekeepers, I think what is happening at the moment is there are a whole series of possible initiatives being discussed amongst different countries, including Arab League proposals and so on. I think that in the time to come in the next weeks and months we should be in a clearer position to say what is the right way forward, but I have got no doubt at all that a significant component of that will be real international support for the process of peace building. Now quite what form that will take, I think that is something that is decided at a later point, and at the moment, as I said yesterday, we are at a preliminary stage of trying to work our way through the difficult issues concerned, because as I think I should have said in my opening remarks, we of course discussed the issues to do with Palestinian prisoners and Corporal Shalit, and so there are a whole series of questions that are difficult. But I don't have any doubt at all myself that the idea of the international community supporting the peace effort is absolutely central. The precise form of that, I think that is something we have to discuss.

Question:

I have a question for both of you. First of all to Mr Blair, the President said very eloquently, he spoke of the need to end policies of aggression, closure and collective punishment, lift the economic siege, the imprisoned Ministers and 10,000 or so prisoners, freedom of religion as well for Palestinians. To what extent, Mr Blair, do you think that Israel bears responsibility for those things, and what should they do as a matter of urgency given the very urgent situation, what should they do to make those things better? And to the President, I would like to ask, Mr Blair is seeing the families of Israeli prisoners later on, would you care to invite him to see the families of Palestinian prisoners?

Tony Blair:

First of all, there are two ways you can approach the issue of building peace. I am going to speak a little crudely and pejoratively but there are two ways you can do it: you can do grandstanding or you can try and get there. And from my perspective I totally understand the strength of feeling that the President has just spoken for on behalf of the Palestinian people, and he represents the Palestinian people. From my perspective the most important thing is not that I start allocating blame, but that I try to do what I can to help, and that is what I am going to do. And I think if I were to do anything else it might make for an easier headline but wouldn't make for an easier solution.

President Abbas:

With respect to prisoner families, we have 10,000 prisoners' families, so we have MPs that represent members of the Palestinian government. I would hope that Prime Minister Blair's time will allow to meet these families, or representatives of these families, but of course we will convey to Prime Minister Blair the demands of these families so that he will be informed about the real picture expressed by the prisoners' families.

Question:

Mr Blair, you have said that you welcome any government of national unity that is formed in Palestine now, but this government will include Hamas and you have already boycotted the Hamas government that was elected. And secondly, does your visit today indicate that Britain has now realised the suffering of the Palestinian society after the suspension of international aid?

Tony Blair:

First of all I should say to you that we have always realised the suffering of the Palestinian people, but the question is how to change the circumstances in which that suffering is happening. And of course it is tragic that there are children growing up in the most abject poverty at the moment when the Palestinian people are a people of enterprise and energy and if we could get a different situation here, as the President was saying, you would have the economic growth, and the reconstruction, and the rising living standards. What I want for the Palestinian people is what I want for people in my own country, which is the right to raise your family in peace and to prosper. That is what it is all about, the question is how to do it in circumstances where the peace process is not moving forward. So that is what we have to do. And in relation to the government of national unity, the key thing is that such a government, if it is a government of national unity and it is based on the Quartet requirements, then yes I believe it is important that we deal with it because we want to make progress and that gives us a basis upon which we can do that. And ultimately the issue that is central is to make sure that provided you can agree the basic principles on which you are going to move forward, then to get everyone talking and momentum restored, and it is not going to get restored unless we are able to talk to people. But you have to talk on the basis of at least some common principles, so that it is politics that counts, it is negotiation that counts, not violence.

Question:

Prime Minister, I hope you will accept that this isn't a disrespectful question, disrespectful to our host, President Abbas, or ignoring the enormity of the issues you are here to discuss, but we have been told by your own Cabinet Ministers in public that we have had an attempted coup, an attempt to unseat you, our elected Prime Minister. And there is more evidence in today's papers that Gordon Brown was connected to that coup. Can you say, hand on heart, that you are 100% convinced that Gordon Brown had nothing to do with the attempt to unseat you?

Tony Blair:

Of course. But I do want to say that I think honestly it is inappropriate. Look, you will have chances to ask me questions about this many, many times, but I really want to concentrate on Palestine today, but of course I accept the assurances that have been given.

Question:

It is your own Ministers that have said attempted coup.

Tony Blair:

If you will forgive me, for once I haven't had the joy of reading our Sunday newspapers and so I am not fully up to speed on that one, and so I'm not going to answer the question on the basis of information I haven't checked out.

ends

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