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British officials are moving ahead with plans to host an international conference aimed at helping Palestinians with political, economic, and security reforms. The conference was proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on his recent Middle East trip. It is expected to be held in March in London.

Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has endorsed the proposed conference. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also welcomed the British initiative. But he said that Israel would not be attending because the reform issues on the agenda are more appropriately discussed by Palestinians among themselves, along with those countries that give financial aid to the Palestinians.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the British initiative "welcome" and "timely":

"I think Prime Minister Blair has talked about, as a follow-on to the Palestinian election, having a meeting that would help support the sort of building of institutions, reform on the economic, political, and security side. And all those are important topics on the agenda."

An election is scheduled January 9th to choose a successor to the late Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. The emergence of a legitimate Palestinian leadership committed to democracy, the rule of law, transparent government, and an end to violence and terror is critical. President George W. Bush says this is "the heart of the matter" in the effort to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians:

"The Palestinian people deserve a peaceful government that truly serves their interests, and the Israeli people need a true partner in peace."

One thing is becoming increasingly clear, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "There is not going to be any successful negotiation or peace without an end to terrorism."