Andrew Bishop
The Middle East Times
June 18, 2008 - 4:44pm

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be hosting an inter-ministerial conference in Berlin on June 24 with the aim of rallying the international community around their effort to strengthen the Palestinian Authority's judicial and security capabilities.

Blair's office has confirmed his attendance at the Conference in Support of Palestinian Civil Security and the Rule of Law. In addition, the German Federal Foreign Office has announced that Merkel will be joined by Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, as well as by minister-level representatives from up to 40 other guest nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni might attend.

"The Palestinians will be seeking two things at this conference," said Robert Blecher, an Israel-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. "On the one hand, they will be hoping for more funding pledges to finance their current reforms. But on the other, they will also be looking for something even more valuable: international political support to actually get these reforms implemented."

Indeed, international support has been lacking in recent years as President Mahmoud Abbas' cabinet has pursued its internal reform program aimed at producing the conditions necessary for a viable Palestinian state to one day emerge.

In his attempt to rebuild Palestine's legal and police infrastructure, Abbas might have found just the right partner with Merkel who is currently trying to strike a balance in Germany's usually more pro-Israeli Mideast policy.

As the country's Federal Foreign Office puts it: "In light of its history, Germany bears a particular moral responsibility for the security and existence of the state of Israel;" a point stressed last March when the German chancellor addressed the Israeli Knesset and "bowed" to the victims of the Holocaust.

Yet Merkel seems to be resolute in showing increased support to the Palestinian Authority. According to the German news outlet Deutsche Welle, "the German people are often far more sympathetic to the Palestinian's plight and far more willing to criticize Israel than their government."

Merkel is walking a fine line in trying to reflect both the German public's leanings and the government's position.

On her most recent trip to the region Merkel developed close contacts with Abbas, but chose to remain solely in Israel.

The German weekly Der Spiegel reported that the Palestinian president asked Merkel to confront the Israeli government over the question of illegal settlements.

Rebuilding the Palestinian security infrastructure will not be an easy task.

"The Palestinian Authority's security sector is still characterized by the legacy of former President Yasser Arafat who, as part of his divide-and-rule method, created many different security organizations with competing competencies," said Patrick Mueller, a research fellow with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

"What is more, after the second intifada [the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000], much of the Palestinian Authority's security infrastructure was destroyed by Israeli military operations."

The rift between Hamas, who now controls Gaza, and Abbas' secular Fatah party further complicates the situation. As Mueller put it: "By limiting security and justice reforms to the West Bank, the Berlin conference ignores the problematic security and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip."

As leading Middle East experts Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote earlier this year in the Washington Post: "Nervous about being left out, all three parties [the Israeli government, Fatah and Hamas] are laboring mightily to avert an understanding between the other two.

"Hamas threatens the nascent Israeli-Palestinian political process, challenging its legitimacy and intimating that it could resort to more violence. Israel warns that renewed Palestinian unity will bring that process to an abrupt halt. Abbas actively discourages any third-party contact with Hamas. The end result is collective checkmate, a political standstill that hurts all and serves none."

That being said the Berlin conference has not been conceived as a peace conference. The next peace talks are planned for this summer in Moscow. Still, Blecher, of the International Crisis Group, thinks that "the conference could mark a positive step in the Palestinian Authority's reform agenda."

But he cautioned: "anyone expecting the Berlin conference to make up for a lack of progress in the ongoing peace process should expect to quickly be proven wrong."

As one analyst commented, however, it is difficult to predict how significant this conference will truly turn out to be.


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