Berlin urges donors to support Palestinian police

BERLIN (Reuters) – German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged a conference of international donors on Tuesday to provide funds to strengthen Palestinian police and legal institutions.

Berlin says the one-day donors conference is an important step on the path to a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians — a goal the two sides pledged to pursue at a conference in the U.S. city of Annapolis last November.

“We are talking about the preconditions for economic development. That’s security,” Steinmeier said at the opening of the conference of some 50 nations in Berlin.

While Germany hopes to raise some $180 million for projects including Palestinian court houses and prisons, political talks on the peace process are set to take place on the sidelines.

The so-called “Quartet” of Middle East peace mediators — comprising the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States — is set to meet in Berlin later on Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on her plane to Berlin Middle East peace mediators would have a first opportunity to take stock of last week’s truce between Israel and Hamas Islamists in Gaza.

“I’m certain there will be an opportunity to discuss Gaza, where we hope the calm will hold,” Rice said.

Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana are to meet in Berlin, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joining via video link.

Rice said they would review various tracks of the peace process, including the indirect talks between Syria and Israel that have been mediated by Turkey.

“The Quartet meeting will be able to review where we are on all these tracks,” Rice said. “I’m sure we will have a chance to discuss the intersections, but I hope we will not lose track or not lose focus on the Palestinian-Israeli piece,” she said.

Palestinian and Israeli officials have said Rice is set also to meet Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to try to move peace talks forward.

U.S. President George Bush launched the final-status negotiations seven months ago with the aim of reaching a framework deal on the nature of a future Palestinian state before he steps down in January.

Disputes over Jewish settlements, a corruption scandal that could topple Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and violence at the Israel-Gaza border have hurt efforts to achieve a deal.

A Gaza truce went into effect on Thursday and Israel said it had begun easing its economic blockade of the strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea that is home to 1.5 million. But both sides have voiced doubts about how long the ceasefire will hold.

Conference host Germany says strengthening Palestinian police is one step to more security in the region. Berlin is hoping to raise some $180 million for projects proposed by the Palestinian government under President Mahmoud Abbas.

At a meeting in Paris last year, donors pledged more than $7 billion to the Palestinians over the next three years. German diplomats say the Berlin conference is an opportunity to lock in some of those pledges to concrete projects.

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