Blair sees ‘possibility’ in Mideast

1160.jpgFormer British Prime Minister Tony Blair, making his first public comments as the international community’s Mideast peace envoy, urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders Tuesday to take advantage of a new “sense of possibility” in the region.

Blair, who arrived in Israel on Monday, said he had come “to listen, learn and reflect” during two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But he said he already senses a willingness by the sides to make progress.

“I think there is a sense of possibility, but whether that sense of possibility can be translated into something, that is something that needs to be worked at and thought about over time,” Blair said after meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.

Blair is in the region as the new envoy for the “Quartet” of Mideast mediators — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. He is charged with laying the foundations for a future independent Palestinian state. Blair’s first test will be the success of a Mideast peace summit, expected in the autumn, announced by President Bush last week.

Blair told Israeli officials in meetings Monday that the Mideast peace summit must bring substantive results and not just be a public relations event, Israeli officials said Tuesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not allowed to discuss such diplomatic meetings with the media.

Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, promised to use his largely ceremonial post to support Blair.

“Your success is our success. Your dreams are our dreams,” he told reporters after their meeting. “I feel this is a serious window of opportunity for peace, but the duration is not too long. We will have to help you.”

Blair was slated to meet separately later Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israeli officials who have spoken with Blair said he wants to learn the positions of the two sides before setting down a real working plan. Blair does not want to impose anything on either side but expects real progress, they said.

Israel understands that the regional meeting will be Blair’s first test in his new role, the Israeli officials said.

Livni said after her talks with Blair Monday that his mission comes at a “critical time when it is possible to create a change of direction” after years of stalemate in peacemaking.

Blair, who stepped down as the British premier last month, takes up his post at a promising time. The Palestinian uprising has largely fizzled and Abbas has installed a pro-Western government in the West Bank.

However, Blair’s mandate from the Quartet has been limited to helping the Palestinians develop their economy, build governing institutions and laying the groundwork for statehood.

Officially, Blair was instructed to leave aside “final-status” issues on resolving the conflict, such as borders, Palestinian refugees and the governance of Jerusalem, raising questions about how effective he can be.

His task also has been complicated by Palestinian infighting that led to the forcible takeover of Gaza by the Islamist Hamas movement in a bloody five-day war last month. Abbas’ Fatah movement now spearheads a moderate government in the West Bank while Hamas has control of Gaza.

The Quartet has shunned Hamas, which the U.S. and EU consider a terrorist group.

Hamas, which won Palestinian legislative elections last year, warned that it cannot be ignored. “It will lead to nothing but failure,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Blair’s trip is part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts meant to restart peace talks after a seven-year lull.

On Wednesday, the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers are due in Israel to formally present an Arab peace initiative that envisions full Arab recognition of Israel in return for lands the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

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