Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: I am glad that my friend, Tony Blair, accepted my invitation and found the time to come and visit Israel.  I am sure that his visit will contribute to advancing the relationship between Israel and Great Britain, as well as to the peace process in the Middle East.

Tony Blair is a friend of Israel, and understands the concerns and problems which we face here.  I wish to thank Mr. Blair for his ongoing commitment to advance the peace process in the Middle East, and his support of the Disengagement Plan.

In our discussions today, I told Prime Minister Blair that I remain committed to implementing the Disengagement Plan which was approved by the Israeli Government and Parliament, according to the time table set in the Plan.  We discussed the new opportunities emerging in our region, and the need to exhaust every opportunity in order to push the process forward. 

We hope that the new leadership in the Palestinian Authority will choose to fight terrorism and push the reform process forward, and as I said in the past, we then would be willing to coordinate security issues and elements of the Disengagement Plan with that leadership.  In the meantime, I repeated our willingness to take the required steps to help the Palestinians hold free and fair presidential elections.

The Prime Minister and I discussed his initiative to hold an international meeting in London to help the reform process in the Palestinian Authority.  I told the Prime Minister that we welcome his initiative and we regard it to be very important.  It is our view that an efficient and comprehensive reform process will help the Palestinians run an effective administration which would be able to face the challenges that lie ahead, including fighting terror and dismantling its infrastructure.   The elimination of terrorism will allow us to resume the discussions under the Roadmap.  We reiterated our commitment to the implementation of the Roadmap, according to its sequence.

I wish to again thank Prime Minister Blair for his visit, and for his continuing friendship to the State of Israel.

Prime Minister Tony Blair:  First of all, I would like to say how pleased I am to be here in Israel and to thank Prime Minister Sharon for kind welcome of me here. 

Before I go to the substance of our discussions, can I also express my deep condolences to the families of the American soldiers that lost their lives in Iraq yesterday.  It once again shows the necessity of winning the struggle there against terrorism.

The Prime Minister described me a moment or two ago as a friend of Israel, and I am a friend of Israel, and proud to be so.  When the Disengagement Plan was first put forward by Prime Minister Sharon, I commented on it at a press conference with President Bush back in April this year.  And I said then that I thought it had the potential to be a very important moment.  I remember being somewhat criticized for saying that at the time, but I believe that subsequent events have shown that this is indeed an important opportunity. 

And at the press conference that I then did with President Bush a few weeks ago, we set out five stages which could lead us to a situation where it was once again possible to talk of a genuine process for peace here.  The first step was to set out the overall vision that people want to get to, which is the two-state solution, and that we did.  The second is that there should be free and fair elections for the new Palestinian president.  That is now underway, and I thank Prime Minister Sharon for what he said about doing all that Israel can to enable that to happen.  The third step was then to make sure, prior to disengagement actually happening, that there was a clear plan for the Palestinian side in respect to the measures necessary for political institutions, economic transparency and security that ensured that we could indeed have proper partners for peace on either side.  That is the purpose of the meeting in London, and I thank Prime Minister Sharon for his welcome of it.

The purpose of this, in other words, is to make sure that when the fourth step that we talked about, namely the disengagement, actually happens, we have in place a proper and viable plan in order to make sure that disengagement can indeed then lead back into the Roadmap, as the Prime Minister indicated.  And that was the fifth step.  So in other words, we set out an overall vision, we have the election of the Palestinian president, we have a plan – a proper plan, a viable plan – for the Palestinian side in terms of politics, the economy, security, and then what we can do is have the disengagement, and after that – provided there is a complete and total end to the terrorism that has disfigured so much of what has happened in this area, we can then get back in to the Roadmap that people want to see. 

And I think what the Prime Minister said today also, about trying to coordinate the disengagement with the Palestinian side is important.  And I want to make this very clear from our perspective – that I believe this would gain support in the whole of the international community.  Everybody wants to see that overall vision of Israel confident of its own security, and a viable Palestinian state within place.  The viability cannot just be about territory, it also has to be about proper democratic institutions, about proper security and proper use of the economy.  In other words, the viability has to be that of a state that is democratic, that is not giving any succor or help to terrorism, and that uses the help that is given from the outside in a proper and transparent way.  Now, I believe it is possible to do that, and I hope, in that way – in that limited way I set out – the London meeting  next year can be of some assistance.

This is not, let me say right at the very beginning, it is not and cannot be a substitute for the conferences under the Roadmap, or what then happens in any negotiation that takes places at a later stage.  But what it can do, I hope, is ensure that there is a real sense that when disengagement happens, there are plans and proposals in place to allow the Palestinian side to become a proper partner for peace with Israel.  That is the purpose of that meeting.  I hope we can achieve something and I thank the Prime Minister very much for his welcome here today.

PM Sharon:  Thank you.

Question:  Prime Minister Blair, I just want to make clear, do you – as President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon – believe that fighting terror and dismantling the Palestinian terror organizations is a pre-condition to any political negotiation or progress?  And on the Syrian track, do you believe that Israel is now missing an historic opportunity for peace with Syria after what President Bashar Asad said recently in the last few months?

PM Blair:  Well, I think on the issue of Syria, that is really for Israel to take its decision and see if its possible to move forward on that track.

In respect to terrorism, let me make one thing very clear: there is not going to be any successful negotiation or peace without an end to terrorism.  That is… the world has changed in these past few years.  And what is necessary, I think for people to understand, is that if there is the proper security measures taken, that Israel does stand ready to implement the Roadmap.  That in other words, the important thing is to make sure that the absence of terrorism then can create the situation in which a proper negotiated settlement can take place.  So that is my position, and I think, if I can put it to you in this way, I think that is the position of the vast majority of the international community.  And all of us now in the world today are fighting terrorism.  In different ways, we’re fighting in Britain with radical groups who want to cause terrorist acts in our country.  We’re fighting in Iraq now, where the people in Iraq want democracy, the terrorists are trying to stop them.  And I think the most important thing is for us to understand, terrorism is not the way to a negotiated settlement.  Terrorism is the obstacle to a negotiated settlement.  If we can put it in that way, and if it is then clear that if there is that end to terrorism, Israel stands ready to do what it has said it would do, then I think we can make progress.

Question:  Andrew Mars from the BBC.  If I could ask one question to each Prime Minister?  Could I ask Mr. Blair what, in specific terms, you need to hear from the Palestinians before you leave today?  What, in concrete terms, you are looking for?

And if I could ask Mr. Sharon?  If I was a Palestinian, wondering whether this was time for a historic change, but suspicious of Israel, perhaps suspicious of yourself… what kind of future do you think that I could look forward to, perhaps in ten years?  What is the promise ahead of me for my state and my own future, if I make that change?

PM Blair:  What I hope today is that the Palestinian side can see that we stand ready to help, to make sure that the measures that are necessary in order to give peace a chance actually take place.  We have an opportunity.  But the fact that you have an opportunity doesn’t mean to say that the opportunity is taken.  It’s got to be taken.  How is it taken?  It is taken by recognizing that the only way we are going to make meaningful progress, is that, if, as I was saying earlier, this idea about viability for any Palestinian state encompasses ideas of democracy, economic transparency and an end to the security problems that have beset this process.  Now, I think and I hope the Palestinians understand that that is necessary, and the purpose of the meeting, in a sense, the conference next year is to make sure the international community gets behind that so that we are actually helping create the necessary partnership that is then going to take this process forward.

PM Sharon:  I believe that if terror will come to its end – as there should be a full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement – the door will be opened for the Roadmap which will change, I believe, the lives of the Israelis and Palestinians, and change the situation in the region.  You mentioned here that both sides are suspicious.  I don’t think that the matter is suspicion.  The matter is the most terrible terror that exists here.  You know, here we do not have to think what might happen.  It does happen – daily.  I must say, Prime Minister Blair emphasized, in order to move forward, there should be an end to terror.  As long as terror exists, it is very hard to expect that there will be any change of the Palestinian situation. 

So, I believe that after the Palestinian elections that are due to be on the 9th of January, we will be able to talk with the Palestinians.  As a matter of fact, there is almost daily contact today. We are trying to coordinate the help and support that should be provided by us to the Palestinians during their elections.  So, if it will be completely quiet – and I do not speak about an effort. In this part of the world, declarations, speeches, foreign agreements are not important.  Only acts.  So, if the needed acts will be taken, then we will be able to move to the Roadmap.  The Roadmap solves the problem, and provides an opportunity to both nations to live peacefully.  But it depends.  I would like to emphasize again and again, it depends on a real decision and real acts by the Palestinians to bring an end to terror.  That will offer all opportunities.

Question:  Prime Minister Blair, following the meeting you just concluded with Prime Minister Sharon, have you taken upon yourself to deliver some sort of message that you will take to the Palestinian Authority and the impression that you have here?  And to Prime Minister Sharon, we heard the things that Prime Minister Blair said about the international committee.  What is the official position that Israel has adopted on that?

PM Sharon:  What is our position about the conference that was initiated by Prime Minister Blair? We support and attribute great importance to Prime Minister Blair’s initiative to hold a meeting in London soon.  This meeting is meant to assist the Palestinians implement the necessary reforms, will accelerate the steps towards democratization, and will deal in financial assistance to the Palestinians.

Since the meeting will deal solely with Palestinian issues, we have discussed this issue with the British, and both sides agree that there is no reason for our participation, because it deals directly with Palestinian issues.  We regard this conference to be very important, and I would like to thank Prime Minister Blair for taking this initiative.

PM Blair:  There are two things I would like to say.  First of all, on the meeting next year – it never was anticipated that Israel should come to the meeting.  It is obviously extremely important though that we keep closely in contact about what is happening here.  We will do that.  But the purpose of this, so that you understand it, you’ve got to go back to the five steps we set out at the press conference with President Bush some weeks ago.  The purpose of this is, as that third step prior to disengagement so that when disengagement happens, we are then in the position to use the opportunity of that disengagement to ensure that we can make progress and get back into the Roadmap.  But then, the actual conferences at which the Israelis and the Palestinians will participate together, that is set out in the Roadmap.

Let me make one thing very clear to you, and I think this, in a sense perhaps encapsulates also the message I will be giving him or give to the Palestinians as well.  I am not interested in having a conference or a meeting which just makes a point.  I don’t want to hold it for that reason.  I don’t want to hold it simply so I can say, “I’ve held a meeting about the Middle East.”  There have been enough meetings and discussions and talk about the Middle East.  I’m holding it because I think there is one big, missing piece of this where the international community actually can play a part.  In the end, the negotiated solution between Israel and the Palestinians is going to be a matter that they are going to have to negotiate, and the Americans have got the lead in this sense, in respect to the international community now.  There’s no point in us trying to think that we can usurp or take that position.  That’s not what we’re trying to do.  The missing bit, that I think we can help on is this – that unless there is a genuine, viable partner in terms of the institutions of democracy, the institutions necessary for proper economic working and the measures necessary on security to give Israel the confidence that it requires – unless that is in place, we are never going to get back into the Roadmap.  Then it becomes an academic discussion, and I can make a speech about the Roadmap or someone else can, but it’s not going to happen.

What we need to do is to recognize that when there is a new Palestinian president, he is going to need the help of the international community to get into that position.  And you know, I was looking recently at the amount of money that the international community puts into the Palestinian side. There is a lot of money there.  We’ve got to make sure that it’s used wisely and properly.  We’ve got to make sure that there is a real, genuine understanding of what is necessary in specific terms to create that viable partner for the future. And, I believe that it’s not about imposing something on the Palestinians, it is about saying the international community will work with them in order to make that happen. And then we’ve got a chance of getting to the place where everyone wants to get to.

Question:  As you know, there is a wide-spread suspicion that actually stopping at stage three is in fact something which would please Israel as far as the peace process in concerned.  And what do you say to the suggestion that in fact, the disengagement plan from Gaza is seen as a substitute rather than a first step on the Roadmap?  As part of that, when do you think that the expansion of settlements in the West Bank should be frozen?  And finally, does Israel accept that for eventual final status there would have to be substantial withdrawals from the West Bank as well as from Gaza?

PM Sharon:  Israel is committed to the Roadmap.  We accepted the Roadmap.  The Palestinians also accepted the Roadmap.  But of course, to do it, we have to do our part in the Roadmap, and the Palestinians have to do their part in the Roadmap.  I never thought that the Disengagement Plan is a substitute for the Roadmap.  The reason that I initiated the Disengagement Plan is for one reason.  I did not have a partner then.  But, once Yasser Arafat left us, I believe that there is a window of opportunity, and I am not going to miss it.  So, now we continue with the Disengagement Plan.  Once the conditions will enable us to move forward, and what I mean here is that there should be a full cessation of terror, not efforts, not promises, not declarations, but full cessation of terror, violence and incitement that will pave the way to the Roadmap.  That was your question?

Question:  Well, also about the West Bank in particular in regard to the settlements there, and whether eventual disengagement there has to take place as well.

PM Sharon:  The Disengagement Plan speaks about the relocation of our towns and villages in the Gaza District, and four villages in the northern part of Samaria.  Then, we have to wait and see what happens.  If the Palestinians will take all the necessary steps according to the agreement and according to the agreement between President Bush and myself, then we will be able to start the Roadmap.  So it depends.  Now I will say that it depends very much on the Palestinians.  By now, we have not seen even the slightest step taken by the Palestinians.  I understand there are elections now, and it is not that I am happy that they are not taking steps, but they are not making even the slightest effort.  Because, it is not a problem of forces.  In the Gaza District, they have 30,000 armed security people under the control of the Palestinian Authority.  We would have expected that if they would not start now with the dismantling of those terrorist organizations, at least they would make an effort to prevent the deployment of those mortars and rockets that are attacking our towns and settlements on both sides of the border.  I would have expected that they would do that.  But after the elections, I believe that they have to start and take all the necessary steps according to the Tenet and the Zinni plans which they committed themselves to in the past, and then we will be able to move forward.  It depends upon them.

Question:  Prime Minister Blair, we are somewhat puzzled by your enthusiasm about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as if it is the most pressing problem of the world.  And some people believe that this may be an effort to distract attention from your problems in Iraq.  And Prime Minister Sharon, have you discussed with Prime Minister Blair the concerns of the Israeli security police and military chiefs about the disengagement?  About the ability to perform it, given refusals and violence?

PM Blair:  I do regard it as very important.  And it is cared about deeply right around the world.  And it’s partly because there are terrorist groups who try to use it – I don’t think they’re that sincere about it actually – for that they try to use it as a means of recruiting people to terror.  And I think it’s important in its own way.  I mean, anyone who believes in this region and its future wants to see Israel secure and wants to see the Palestinians have the opportunity of statehood.

I just want to go back one moment to the previous question.  The question that is asked on the Palestinian side, and indeed in much of the international community is exactly the question that Adam Dalton just asked, which is, “Is disengagement really supposed to be the final word, and actually Israel doesn’t even want to move beyond that?”  And the answer of the Prime Minister has been very clear.  If we can get the right measures of security in place and the terrorism stop, he does want to move forward.  And my message, in a sense, to the rest of the international community is, “Even if you may be doubtful about that, why not put it to the test?  Actually make sure that we do have the measures in place, so that the terrorism stops, and then we can turn around with justification and say, now let us move into that Roadmap.”  But if we don’t take those measures, we’ll never know the answer to that question.

PM Sharon:  I understand that you are waiting for my answer.  First, I think the meeting was a very good meeting.  Relations between ourselves and Great Britain became much closer than in the past.  And I believe that the visit will strengthen our relations.  And as to your question, the question that you asked, I think that I just mentioned that I can tell you one thing – Israel is a democracy and a state of law, and all the Resolutions of the Cabinet and the support in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, will be fully implemented, exactly according to the timetable and the plans that were approved by the Government and the Knesset.  So you don’t have to worry about that.  Israel is a state of law, and the law will be kept.

Question:  Prime Minister Sharon, this is process dogged by jargon.  Can we just clarify what the Prime Minister says that you just said?  In plain language, are you saying today that the withdrawal from Gaza is not the end of the withdrawal from the occupied territories that you, as Prime Minister, are willing to make?  And Prime Minister Blair, what do you say to people at home who say, “We’ve heard it all before.”  They heard you after September the 11th say there was a chance for peace here, and they think, “Here we go, another false dawn.”

PM Blair:  What I would say as an answer, I would say that there are differences now.  You’ve got the Disengagement Plan.  You’ve got new Palestinian leadership.  And maybe, above all else, you’ve got a clear statement, set out in the Roadmap as to how we get there.  And, the Prime Minister can speak for himself, but I certainly have understood him to be saying very, very clearly, “…provided that the terrorism stops.”  And that is the essential thing, provided the terrorism stops, disengagement is not the last word. 

PM Sharon:  I always think, how many times must I repeat what I have already said?  So, I said very clearly that I decided then to start the Disengagement Plan, not having any partner.  There are some changes in the region.  I believe that there is an opportunity now to find leadership that will be willing to cooperate and stop terror.  Again, I speak about acts, not talk, not promises.  Once that will happen, that will enable us to turn to the Roadmap and implement everything which is in Roadmap, according to the sequence of the Roadmap.