Blair calls for expanding Palestinian forces

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JERICHO, West Bank, Sep 12 (Reuters) West Asia envoy Tony Blair, seeking to bolster Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts, today said it was critical to expand the capabilities of Palestinian security forces.

Israel is reluctant to set a strict timetable for any peace moves after a US-sponsored conference without more guarantees that Palestinian forces can prevent attacks on Israel if the Jewish state eases or ends its occupation of the West Bank.

The debate over deadlines comes amid signs of progress this week in talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the outlines of an agreement that would be presented at the conference, to be held near Washington as early as Novemebr 15, or later that month.

Israeli officials said Olmert would be open to rough timelines as long as the Israeli steps are tied to reciprocal moves by the Palestinians on matters like disarming militants, as called for under the long-stalled US ''roadmap'' peace plan.

After touring a Palestinian police training facility in the West Bank city of Jericho, Blair told reporters: ''We've got to try to build the capability of the Palestinian forces.'' ''This training facility is a really important part of that so we've got to give it every support,'' the former British prime minister said after watching recruits quell a mock riot.

The public comments were Blair's first since arriving in the region last week on his second visit as special envoy for the Quartet of West Asia mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The United States has stepped up efforts to bolster Abbas's forces since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

TIMELINES Palestinian officials see timelines as a way of pressuring Israel to take difficult steps that would help them sell any agreement to the Palestinian public.

Israeli officials caution that setting dates that risk not being met only raise frustration on both sides.

''These are negotiations and, in the end, you compromise,'' said an official close to Olmert.

Olmert and Abbas agreed on Monday to appoint negotiating teams to try to narrow differences over final-status issues like borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

''There has been progress. Both sides know they need success and they need a document,'' said another senior Israeli official familiar with the deliberations.

But the official added that the conference was ''one step in a very long process''.

A major sticking point, the official said, was over Abbas's call for deadlines for implementing any agreements.

''They want a tight and strict schedule for implementation,'' the Israeli official said. ''Naturally we can't commit to a tight and strict schedule.'' An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said Israel wanted any timetables to be ''performance-based''.

''A timeline that ignores performance is not effective and when you don't meet a specific target date it can only create more problems and frustration,'' the official said.

''We believe that artificial timelines have been just that. We're very much supportive of the sort of timelines in the roadmap, which means its a performance-based process.'' Reuters GT GC1852

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