Christmas visit supports peace plan

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, attends midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

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ABU DHABI // Capping a symbolic trip to the Palestinian Territories, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, attended midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on Christmas Eve. Earlier in the day, Sheikh Abdullah reiterated the UAE's support for the Arab Peace Initiative, and gave his strong backing to Mr Abbas's Palestinian Authority, which is struggling to control Hamas militants who continue to fire rockets into Israel and have started to openly question the legitimacy of his presidency. The Foreign Minister urged Mr Abbas to continue to lead the Palestinian people after his term expires on Jan 9. The UAE's support of Mr Abbas is in line with the view of many Arab nations that a power vacuum in the occupied territories needs to be avoided to prevent further intra-Palestinian violence. The Emirates also believes the fresh impetus to the Middle East peace process that is likely to take place with the accession of the US president-elect, Barack Obama, will be the best opportunity in years to move forward the Arab initiative launched in 2002. "We feel that it is in the interest of the Palestinian people and of the region at large that [Mr Abbas] should continue to lead his people, regardless of what effect this laborious task might have to his health and efforts," Sheikh Abdullah said at a press conference with the Palestinian leader on Wednesday afternoon, according to the state news agency WAM. After their talks, which coincided with Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city famed as the birthplace of Jesus, Sheikh Abdullah said the UAE hoped to persuade the Obama administration to adopt the Arab plan that was relaunched at an Arab summit in Riyadh last year. The plan calls for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict in return for Israel's withdrawal from the Arab lands that it occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, including east Jerusalem. Israel initially expressed support for the plan, but its leaders have since voiced deep reservations over pulling out of east Jerusalem and resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel. "The initiative is considered the solution to the region's problems, to make our region a safe and stable place, enjoying development and prosperity," Sheikh Abdullah said. "We should bear in mind that the initiative has been driven not only by Arab countries, but also by the Islamic countries who unanimously adopted it during their conference in Tehran," he said, referring to a meeting of Islamic nations in the Iranian capital last month, an apparent suggestion that even Iran would support the effort. He noted that the 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference said at the Tehran summit that they would be willing to normalise relations with Israel if the Jewish state adopts the initiative. Both Mr Obama and Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, are believed to be favourably disposed to its general outlines, and Sheikh Abdullah suggested that after the Israeli elections would be an ideal time to move the plan forward. Later on Wednesday evening, Sheikh Abdullah and his delegation joined Mr Abbas and Salam Fayad, the Palestinian prime minister, for mass at the Church of the Nativity before dining together, WAM said. After the meal, Sheikh Abdullah again made clear the country's support of Mr Abbas: "The UAE Government and people are all with the Palestinian people. We support you and Abu Mazen. I feel happy to be here in Palestine with our people to celebrate Christmas," referring to the Palestinian leader by his Arab nickname. Mr Abbas's Fatah movement is struggling with Hamas, the Islamist group which seized control of Gaza in June 2007 and won national elections in Jan 2006. An Egyptian-brokered truce between Hamas and Israel in Gaza expired on Dec 19. Since then, Israel has attacked presumed Hamas militants, while armed groups have fired rockets on Israeli cities bordering Gaza.Arab and western backing of Mr Abbas has allowed him in recent months to consolidate his authority in the West Bank, which is relatively quiet. The deployment of newly trained Palestinian policemen in Jenin and Hebron and more development projects have created stability that contrasts with the dire living conditions in Gaza, which remains under Israeli siege. Rami Khouri, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist and analyst, applauded Sheikh Abdullah's visit but warned of the pitfalls of the appearance of taking sides in internal Palestinian disputes. "Both Hamas and Fatah have popular legitimacy and both won elections, but both have also acted in immature ways," Mr Khouri said.