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Foreign Affairs Minister Bernier meets with top Palestinian, Israeli officials

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Canadian aid and the Mideast peace process were front and centre Sunday as Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier met with President Mahmoud Abbas and other top Palestinian officials in Ramallah.

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Canadian aid and the Mideast peace process were front and centre Sunday as Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier met with President Mahmoud Abbas and other top Palestinian officials in Ramallah.

Bernier, who wrapped up a two-day trip to India on Saturday, also met later Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In his talks with the Palestinians, Bernier said he emphasized that the Canadian pledge of $300 million for Palestinian nation building over the next five years is "not unconditional."

"We will need to see demonstrable progress in (peace) negotiations by both sides, as well as progress in Palestinian democratic reforms," Bernier said after meeting with the Palestinian Authority's foreign minister, Riad Malki.

Bernier said he also noted that part of the aid was earmarked for educational programs "to help combat hatred and incitement" against Israel.

Details of exactly how the aid will be used will be worked out later, but Abbas and Prime Minister Salim Fayyad have given assurances that Canada's concerns would be met, Bernier added.

Unlike President George W. Bush's high-profile visit that virtually shut down Ramallah last week, Bernier's presence went mostly unnoticed by ordinary Palestinians.

The only evidence was the billowing Canadian flags and several embassy vehicles unobtrusively parked outside the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, far from the downtown.

Malki said that the two men had a "good meeting" and "a frank, open and constructive dialogue" in their followup to the Bush-hosted conference in Annapolis, Md., in November that jump-started the long-dormant peace talks.

Israel and the Palestinians had pledged to try to reach a peace deal by the end of this year.

'While ambitious, I believe this is attainable," Bernier said of the deadline.

Malki said he discussed with Bernier "the obstacles to progress in the peace process, especially Israeli settlements," as well as ways of co-ordinating bilateral ties.

He also thanked Canada for its aid and stressed the "good, working relationship" with Ottawa.

However, Malki also alluded to differences as well, saying "issues between them would be raised in quiet diplomacy."

He did not elaborate.

There were no handshakes and no smiles and the two men showed no visible warmth, either during their news conference or as they left the room.

Only three questions were taken from reporters, all related to Israeli settlements activity.

During their private meeting, Malki had asked his Canadian counterpart to press the Israelis into fulfilling their commitment to the first stage of the road map peace process by imposing a total freeze on all Israeli settlement building activity in the West Bank .

The Palestinians, he said, draw no distinction between east Jerusalem, where they hope to establish the capital of a future Palestinian state, and the rest of the West Bank.

Bernier was noncommittal, saying only that "new Israeli settlement activity was contrary to the peace process."

In his meeting with Olmert, Bernier "reiterated Canada's strong support for Israel and for Israel's right to assure its own security," a Foreign Affairs official said on condition of anonymity.

The two also spoke about regional security matters, such as Iran, and Bernier expressed Canada's concerns regarding worrying statements made by Iran's president on Israel and the Holocaust, the official said.

On Monday, Bernier meets with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, as well as with Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security co-ordinator.

He later visits Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, Holocaust Memorial and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

-With files from The Associated Press

 
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