Merkel and Blair to stage Middle East security talks
( Reuter )- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and peace envoy Tony Blair will jointly organize a Middle East security conference to be held at the beginning of June in Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry said on Friday.
"The aim of the conference will be to discuss the strengthening of the Palestinian police force and justice apparatus," the ministry spokeswoman said.
Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported earlier on Friday that all European Union members, several Arab states, the Middle East quartet of Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations as well as Palestinian and Israeli officials will be invited to the talks.
The paper, citing two German government sources it declined to identify by name, said the goal of the conference was to help Palestinians prepare for the day they took over responsibility for their own state.
The ministry spokeswoman declined to say who the participants would be.
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung said nations including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates would play an important role at the talks and Israeli and Palestinian officials had already pledged to attend.
A U.S. official said in Washington that the June conference was not a "peace conference" but would deal with police, judiciary and law enforcement issues.
U.S.-backed peace talks launched in November have been bogged down by tensions over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Israel's reluctance to remove checkpoints and an upsurge in violence between the two sides.
A Middle East diplomat said the Berlin conference would look at security issues and strengthening security cooperation between both sides.
An official with the EU police training program in the West Bank said the Berlin conference would focus on police training and rule of law. Officials said it had been expected to take place as early as May.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has taken the lead in brokering peace moves between the Palestinians and the Israelis and hosted a conference in Annapolis, Maryland last November that relaunched the stalled peace process.
After the Annapolis meeting, Russia promised to host a follow-on meeting but a time has not been set for that.
Rice visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last week to try and break a deadlock in the talks that emerged due to violence in Hamas-run Gaza.
Blair's role is to rebuild Palestinian institutions and get projects off the ground that will show the Palestinians that signing onto the peace process can reap dividends.
Merkel becomes the first German chancellor to address Israel's parliament next week.
Her three-day trip, starting on Sunday, marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
She will be accompanied by several cabinet ministers and will hold talks on Monday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Merkel's office said on Friday the chancellor had telephoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who had informed her about the state of peace talks with Israel and the situation in Gaza.
Abbas had urged Merkel to discuss settlement building with the Israelis, which were severely hampering the peace process, the office said. He also welcomed the conference planned for June, it added.