WHISTLER, B.C. (CP) - Foreign ministers from the powerful G-8 group of countries will chew over how to revive prospects for Middle East peace during a dinner meeting Wednesday at their two-day conference here.
The key question: is it the right time to organize an international peace conference while tit-for-tat violence continues in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories? The United States initially proposed a conference but the U.S. administration's cool attitude towards Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat now has put the idea in doubt. European nations and Japan seem more prepared to accept Arafat as a peace partner.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, hosting this meeting, refused to characterize the differences as divisions.
"There's a variety of views as to what should be done," he said in a briefing before the ministers sat down for their first session. "We'll have a chance to discuss that. That is one of the great opportunities of these meetings."
Graham said the dinner will give ministers a chance to review the current situation in the region with a view to co-ordinating international efforts.
"What I would want (is) we would come out of this meeting is certainly a recognition of the need for an international conference to move the process of peace forward," he said.
"And whatever our differences might be to the details as to what we should be doing, at least we should be co-ordinating and supporting one another in ensuring we get a political dialogue going to solve the terrible problem that's existing there."
The actual role of the G-8 in fostering a peace conference will be taken up by the ministers at dinner, said Graham.
"Is there a discrete role of the G-8 where I can - to use that awful expression - bring value-added to it?" he said. "That's what we'll be trying to ascertain. I believe we can if we work together."
The meeting got underway Wednesday afternoon with discussions on counterterrorism, rebuilding a secure, stable Afghanistan and reviewing the recent crisis between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
Graham said the ministers hope to issue a progress report on efforts to co-ordinate the war on terror.
Reform of Afghanistan's security sector and the eradication of opium-poppy production - a major source of cash for Afghan warlords - is also on the table, as is progress of the country's loya jirga, a grand counsel meeting now to set up a transitional government leading up to elections in two years.
Graham noted the Americans' major role not only in hunting down remnants of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters but also in helping the Afghans set up a national security force, crucial to ensure the country doesn't slip backward.
"If we go back to the time which prevailed in Afghanistan before of independent warlords financing their operations through access to opium and drug money, in fact we'll be going to a point where Afghanistan could well again become a centre of terrorism because there won't be the civil society," he said.
The meeting, which will lead into a G-8 leaders' summit in Kananaskis, Alta., later this month, is being held under tight security.
But only about 75 people showed up to protest peacefully outside the black metal temporary fencing rinking the venue, a luxury hotel.
"We didn't expect any more," said Elsie Dean, one of the organizers. "What I understand is they're busy planning for Calgary, for Kananaskis, and they didn't have the energy to work anything up here."
A delegation from the protest presented Graham with a written statement to pass on to his colleagues. The demonstrators want the G-8 to ratify treaties that would ban weapons in space and address globalization's impact on the environment and the wealth gap between rich and poor nations.
A visibly relaxed RCMP contingent circulated among the protesters passing out bottled water, especially to elderly demonstrators wilting in the hot sun.
The demonstration lasted no more than an hour and protesters were long gone when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's motorcade, the last to arrive, drove through the security cordon.
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