Blair: Strengthen Mahmoud Abbas

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday reiterated his commitment to help to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Blair met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem, and spoke about his initiative to strengthen the Palestinian Authority's capacity to govern even before an agreement is reached.

Earlier, Blair met Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. After the meeting, Blair said he hoped that in the next few weeks the international community would present an initiative that would reflect the international community's willingness to help Abbas and "the plight of the Palestinians," as well as a political framework for moving toward a two-state solution.

Blair, who came to jump-start the stalled peace talks, is examining ways of transferring funds directly to PA chairman Abbas, thus bypassing Hamas.

He asked Olmert, Livni and Peretz about the various possible consequences of the political crisis in the PA. He also asked about the chances for setting up a new Palestinian cabinet that would accept the Quartet's conditions and reconize Israel, or for advancing the elections in the PA.

Olmert hosted Blair in the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, and gave him the honor of lighting the fourth Hanukkah candle in a live broadcast.

At the joint press conference afterward, Olmert announced that he is setting up a joint panel with the Palestinians to discuss the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Olmert said he wants to meet Abbas very much, and that "both sides are acting to make it happen very soon."

Olmert again dismissed the proposals of Syrian President Bashar Assad to resume peace talks with Israel.

"We don't feel that the Syrian behavior these days lays down the foundations for peace talks," he said.

Blair called on Hamas to accept conditions laid down by the international community regarding Israel, saying it was the only way for the ruling Palestinian government to "have a proper relationship" with the rest of the world. He said the international community is ready to engage with Syria "if Syria makes a choice to be constructive towards peace."

The strategic choices available to Damascus have been laid out very clearly, said Blair, adding that if Syria continues to support terror, it is turning down the option for peace.

"If Syria makes a choice to be constructive for peace, to support democratic governments and not undermine them, then we remain open of course to being constructive with them," Blair said.

Earlier, at the news conference with Blair in Ramallah, Abbas said that he asked the British prime minister to pass on messages to Olmert on such issues as the prisoners' release, removal of checkpoints in the West Bank and the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues that Israel is holding.

Abbas called for intensified international efforts to reach a permanent solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He said he and Olmert had a joint goal - to advance the peace process - and said he was ready to meet the Israeli PM at any time.

Abbas warned that the situation in the Palestinian territories was "dangerous."

Blair said in Ramallah that, "if the international community really means what it says about supporting people who share the vision of a two-state solution, who are moderate, who are prepared to shoulder their responsibilities, then now is the time for the international community to respond."