Moscow ME parley gains momentum

PA chief urges conference be held soon to speed up talks; says all prisoners must be freed in peace deal.

abbas funny hat 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
abbas funny hat 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The idea of an international Middle East conference in Moscow, one Israel has been cool to, returned to the agenda on Thursday, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for such a meeting during a visit to Moscow. Quartet representatives meeting in Amman approved the proposal for a Moscow meeting in the summer, the Russian ITAR-Tass agency reported, although this was not immediately confirmed by the other members of the Quartet - the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. One senior Israeli official said Jerusalem had not yet heard that the conference was agreed upon, and that no date, agenda or invitation list had been drawn up. But Abbas, speaking to students Thursday at the Moscow Institute for Foreign Relations, said the proposed conference was needed to "save the peace process." "We have great hopes the conference will move forward the peace process between Palestinians and Israel, and that it will lay the grounds for the overall peace process for the entire Middle East that will include Syria and Lebanon," he said. It is widely expected that the conference in Moscow would emphasize bringing Israeli and Syrian leaders to the negotiating table for the first time in eight years. "Since the Annapolis conference, we knew another stage would be needed," said Abbas, who was receiving an honorary doctorate. "We just need to agree on the format and program." He said a peace agreement was possible by the end of 2008 because "90 percent of our problems with Israel are already solved." While diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said Israel would likely attend such a conference rather than trigger a full-blown diplomatic crisis with the Kremlin, they did not mask their lack of enthusiasm for the idea. Last month Prime Minister Olmert, at a press conference, said he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that "what we need to make peace in the Middle East is to sit the two sides together to talk, rather than going to international conventions. This going from one convention to the other is not something I am particularly in favor of." During his visit to Israel in March, Lavrov left the clear impression on his Israeli interlocutors that Russia was determined to go ahead with meeting. He said then that the agenda of the conference "will be very simple. There were the accords adopted in Annapolis, everybody supported them. Let us reaffirm that support and stimulate the parties toward their effective realization." Also on Thursday, Quartet envoy Tony Blair held a series of talks in the region, meeting together with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. He met with Olmert the night before, and with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad on Thursday. The meeting with Barak took was attended by the US special envoy for Mideast security, Gen. James Jones, who is currently involved in preparing a report on the security needs of Israel and other actors in the region. Barak has come under criticism from various diplomatic corners in recent weeks for not taking down more West Block roadblocks and facilitating easier access in the region. A spokesman for Barak said it was agreed at the meeting that Israel would increase the hours of operation of the Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan. AP and Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.