WHISTLER, B.C. (CP) - As the G-8 foreign ministers tucked into their dinner Wednesday, they chewed over the prospects of reviving Middle East peace talks, perhaps through an international conference as early as this summer.
The discussion - like the dinner menu - were kept under wraps but the outlines of what's needed has been made clear this week by officials from some of the delegations. None are particularly surprising. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has proposed a peace conference but the White House's attitude towards Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has cooled because of his inability to stop terrorist attacks by militants into Israel.
European nations and Japan seem more prepared to accept Arafat as a peace partner.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, host of 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 he hopes this meeting will produce some recognition that an international conference is needed to move the peace process forward.
"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," he said.
A French official said France still considers peace possible after months of violence during the Palestinian intefadeh. There's a chance now to start a dialogue.
"The problem we all face today is to keep the window as open as possible," the official said.
The steps must include a decision to hold the conference and close co-operation by the international community to bring the parties to the table, he said.
And if a conference goes ahead, the parties must be prepared to act on its decisions.
Of course, Israel and the Palestinian authority must be prepared to sit across a table despite hundreds of deaths and a climate of hatred and revenge. There are those on both sides willing to talk but also strong elements capable of derailing negotiations, the French official said.
Britain also backs the idea of a conference "if it can be made to happen," said John Williams, spokesman for British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
"We're keen to support anything that would help lower tensions and prevent confrontation," he said.
Powell had originally proposed July for the conference - the Swiss and Italians have offered to host it. U.S. ambivalence towards Arafat - not shared elsewhere - is not yet a make-or-break issue, Williams indicated.
Europeans still view Arafat as a democratically elected leader of the Palestinians.
As to a conference's goals, some want it to produce a blueprint for peace but others say it consider all proposals and lead to a future set of talks. Demanding a concrete plan this summer is probably not achievable, said one official.
"You can not be to prescriptive."
Japan has used the G-8 meeting here to promote its interest in taking a bigger role in the Mideast peace process.
Officials point out Japan is the biggest single aid donor to the Palestinians with $600 million US in non-cash projects since the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993.
Pummelled by a decade of recession, Japan now wants to be seen as something more than a set of deep pockets. Its officials point out both sides see Japan as a disinterested third party.
It has affirmed its support for reforming the Palestinian Authority and offered assistance for such things as elections, education in democracy and creating an independent judicial system.
Other Japanese aid programs depend on the Palestinians achieving certain benchmarks, such as curbing violence and resuming peace talks.
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