Blair puts Palestinian issue at center stage in Jerusalem

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair shifted the spotlight from Lebanon onto the Palestinians during their meeting in Jerusalem Saturday night, with Olmert saying at a joint press conference that he is willing to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas without any preconditions, including the release of kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit. "I remain dedicated to advancing the political process with the Palestinians, according to the road map, in accordance with the sequence in all of its phases, starting with the implementation of the first phase, which calls for the dismantling of the terrorist organizations," Olmert said. "There can be no short cuts in implementing this process." Olmert said he told Blair he would be willing to work closely with Abbas, and that he intended to meet with him. The prime minister, who recently indicated such a meeting would not take place until Shalit was released, has now said that such a meeting could actually help in winning Shalit's freedom. "The first priority with the Palestinians is actually the immediate release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit," said Olmert. Blair, facing a barrage of criticism at home and within his own party for what was perceived as too strong support for Israel during the recent war in Lebanon, said, "One of the most changed aspects of leading a country such as Britain today is that stability of this region also affects the stability of my country. We live in a world in which how you fare here, how Israel does with Lebanon and Palestine, are issues that also have influence on how my country fares, and that is the same right across the globe today." Having said that, Blair - who was expected to face Palestinian protests when he goes to meet Abbas in Ramallah on Sunday - did not publicly call on Olmert to take any concrete steps towards meeting Palestinian demands. Privately, however, diplomatic sources said that Blair emphasized the need to find ways to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and find "constructive" ways to deal with the situation. The two leaders met for about an hour before the press conference, followed by dinner and another private meeting. Asked whether he felt that Israel's unilateral approach over the last few years was now dead, Blair said that the British faced a similar situation in Northern Ireland where "you either get an agreement or you have to operate on your own." He said that while it was obviously better to come to an agreement, "the only one that will stick is an agreement where people resolve their differences through politics and not through violence." Blair said that everyone agreed that the two-state solution was an agreed-upon "end point," that the road map was the way to get there, and that what now needs to be done was to "find a means to get back to it." Regarding Lebanon, Blair said that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 was the only cease-fire that was ever going to be sustainable, and said that if it were implemented "in the way it should and will be, then this will be a major strategic advance for peace in the Middle East." The Iranian nuclear issue was also a focus of the discussions, with Blair saying that Britain remained firm that the will of the international community on this issue must be adhered to. At times during the press conference it seemed as if the two leaders, both politically weak and beleaguered, had formed a mutual admiration society. Olmert, who called Britain a staunch ally of Israel, said Blair's contribution in this region has been "invaluable." He praised him for "powerful" leadership, and said he valued his "support, advice and proposals." "Tony Blair has been one of the greatest world fighters against terrorism," he said. "We hold him in the highest esteem for his determination and courage in facing terror." Blair, for his part, praised Olmert's leadership during the recent war. "I know from my own experience as a leader how difficult situations of conflict are," he said. Acknowledging that Israel has been through a traumatic period, he said, "I would like to pay tribute to the quite exceptional character you showed in leading your country." Blair is scheduled to meet Sunday with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, and the families of the abducted soldiers. After his meeting with Abbas, he is to fly to Beirut for a short visit there. In a related development, visiting Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema also stressed the Palestinian issue in his talks with Livni. He said that according to assessments in Rome, the Palestinians were on the verge of setting up a new government, headed by Fatah elements. Asked by D'Alema whether Israel would dialogue with such a government, Livni said that it would do so if that government accepted the three internationally accepted benchmarks: renouncing terrorism, accepting previous agreements and recognizing Israel. Livni also met Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who sounded supportive of an Arab League idea to convene an international conference to try to push forward a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. Livni's response was that this would only "complicate matters," and the focus should now be on the Palestinian issue, which she defined as the "core of the problem."