PARIS (AFP)16/12/2007: – Major powers and key donors gathered Sunday in Paris for a conference aimed at raising billions of dollars to help the emergence of a viable Palestinian state and give political impetus to the newly-relaunched peace process with Israel.
Ninety international delegations are expected at Monday’s Conference of Donors for a Palestinian State, the biggest of its kind since 1996, which aims to shore up the process jumpstarted in the US city of Annapolis last month.
President Mahmud Abbas is seeking 5.6 billion dollars (3.85 billion euros) spread over 2008 to 2010 for an ambitious development plan to underwrite a promised state and tackle economic hardship in the Palestinian territories.
The amount the Palestinians needed for 2008 was "around 1.6 to 1.7 billion," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told journalists accompanying her on the plane to Paris.
Sources in her delegation said the United States was prepared to shoulder one third of the financial burden in 2008 by forking up 550 million dollars. The German government, meanwhile, promised 200 million dollars by 2010.
"This is an historically large figure. I think this is the largest assistance package that we have ever done for the Palestinians," a senior US official told journalists on condition of anonymity.
Delegates gathering for the occasion include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, peace envoy for the Middle East quartet — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States — is co-chair of the event along with host country France, peace-broker Norway and the European Commission.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will represent Israel, which is under pressure to lift restrictions on freedom of movement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to allow the Palestinian Authority‘s plan to take shape.
Livni and Abbas held a meeting in a Paris hotel Sunday afternoon after which the Palestinian leader highlighted French President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s diplomatic credentials."
He maintains close links with all the parties, Israel and the Arabs, which allows him to play an important role," Abbas said of his host.
Sarkozy will open the proceedings, at Abbas’ side, with a speech at 9:30 am (0830 GMT) on Monday, before handing over to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner for the rest of the day.
At the US-sponsored meeting in Annapolis, Maryland last month, Israel and the Palestinians pledged to seek a peace deal by the end of next year, relaunching negotiations frozen for seven years.
Abbas has said he is confident Paris will clinch the necessary aid — 70 percent in budget support and 30 percent for development projects — sending a powerful signal of backing for the peace process.
"It is urgent to stabilise the Palestinian economy and implement measures on the ground that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians," said Sarkozy’s spokesman David Martinon.
The Palestinian development plan has been drawn up by the West Bank-based government of the economist Salam Fayyad, whom Abbas appointed prime minister when the Hamas radical Islamist group seized armed control of the Gaza Strip.
In an interview with AFP, Fayyad said his government had undertaken important economic reforms which should reassure donors that their money will not be wasted.
"The reforms are not abstract slogans but concrete actions which he has taken. I can say with certainty that Palestinian financial management is no longer a cause for concern," he said.
Aside from budget support, the Palestinians say the largest chunk of development aid would go to projects in education, health and women’s emancipation.
Between 30 and 40 percent of projects would be in the Gaza Strip — with guarantees to ensure funds do not reach the Hamas militants in control of the territory, according to French and Palestinian sources.
The United States praised Abbas’s government before the opening of the conference.
"You have the best Palestinian government since Oslo. This is not only the best Palestinian government, it is also the most moderate in the Arab world," said the senior US official.
Conference members are expected to urge Israel — which operates 550 checkpoints in the West Bank — to gradually lift restrictions on movement between Palestinian towns and villages, while asking the Palestinians for a big push to improve security conditions.
"The two have to move forwards in tandem," said a French diplomat, though he said the funds would not be strictly tied to either condition.
The senior US official said Rice may also publicly push Israel to halt construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"We may say something publicly. … Settlement activity is one of the central concerns everybody has."
The Middle East quartet is expected to meet on the sidelines of the conference, while several high-profile participants — including Ban, Fayyad, Livni and Blair — held an informal dinner with Kouchner on Sunday evening.
Rice will have a bilateral meeting with Sarkozy on Monday afternoon, his office said.