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THE WORLD

In Mideast, Blair debuts as an envoy

The former British prime minister meets with officials in Jordan and Israel. His next stop is the West Bank for talks with Palestinians.

July 24, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Tony Blair, starting his first visit to the Middle East as an international envoy, met Monday with Israeli officials and heard them blame dysfunctional Palestinian leadership for blocking progress toward peace.

"The Palestinian Authority has to get its act together," an Israeli spokesman quoted Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as telling Blair, stressing "the importance of building healthy Palestinian institutions as an integral part of the peace process."

The former British prime minister is on a 48-hour visit as envoy of the four powers that monitor Middle East peace efforts -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

That group, the so-called quartet, appointed him last month to prepare the ground for an independent Palestinian state by mobilizing humanitarian aid, strengthening the economy and improving governance in the West Bank.

But Israeli officials have privately voiced concern that Blair might be tempted to overstep that mandate and promote peace talks, pressing Israel to make concessions on borders, Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to Jerusalem. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said officials were raising that concern directly with Blair.

"We hope he goes in the direction taken by former President Bill Clinton, who became the world's biggest fundraiser for worthy causes," the Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted an unnamed Cabinet member as saying on the eve of Blair's visit.

Israeli officials publicly embraced Blair's limited assignment, saying he must succeed before the two sides can make peace.

At the same time, one official, Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, told Blair that Israel might be willing to open substantive peace talks soon, without mediators and on its own terms.

Blair's mission "is a critical point that can create a breakthrough," Foreign Minister Livni told reporters after her hourlong meeting with the envoy.

She said the Palestinians, with his help, must control militants who attack Israel and "build a responsible state that can rule in its own land."

Blair made no comment on his talks Monday.

A spokesman, Matthew Doyle, said Blair was on a "preliminary visit to hear the views of key Israelis and Palestinians," as well as those of other Arab leaders, about how he should proceed.

The envoy first met in Jordan with Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib.

After landing in Israel in a white, unmarked private jet, Blair held separate sessions with Livni, Ramon and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

He is to meet today with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing opposition Likud Party, and President Shimon Peres. Then he will travel to the West Bank for meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad before returning to Jerusalem to dine with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Blair plans to return to London on Wednesday without meeting with officials of Hamas, the Islamic movement that calls for Israel's destruction. Hamas won the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections last year and seized military control of the Gaza Strip last month.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said: "Ignoring Hamas, and as a consequence, a big slice of the Palestinian people, will make Tony Blair's mission useless."

Riyad Maliki, the Palestinian Authority information minister aligned with Abbas, took issue with Israel's message to Blair.

"The lack of will by the Israelis to negotiate a peace agreement is undermining the strength the Palestinian leadership needs to make progress on building institutions," he said.

Maliki said Palestinian leaders would listen as Blair explained his mission.

"If his ambition is to engage in peace talks, we will welcome that," Maliki said.

"If he limits himself to a more narrow mandate, we will try to respect that."

Blair is working on an action plan to be presented in the fall to an international donors conference with the aim of financing proposed reforms in the West Bank.

Meeting with quartet representatives in Lisbon last week, Blair promised to bring "intensity of focus" to the job.

"I hope I can offer something in bringing about a solution to this issue that is of such fundamental importance to the world," he said.

Some Middle East specialists question whether Blair can succeed without more authority. His limited assignment is similar to that of former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, who served as an envoy for the quartet in 2005 and 2006.

Wolfensohn resigned, complaining that the West's decision to boycott a Hamas-dominated Palestinian government had made his task impossible.

Blair's mission steers clear of Hamas in keeping with a strategy backed by the United States and Israel to bolster Abbas, who leads the rival Fatah movement, as a peace partner.

Aid mobilized by Blair would be directed only to the West Bank, run by a technocratic government that Abbas appointed last month.

Oxfam International, a nonprofit organization that fights hunger, called on Blair to press Israel to reopen Gaza's border crossings to allow normal commerce and head off a looming humanitarian crisis for its 1.5 million people.

Blair's aides said he planned to spend about one week of every month in the region but was still looking for a suitable headquarters in Jerusalem. He held some meetings Monday in his suite at the King David Hotel, which served as headquarters of the British Mandate authority in Palestine until Israel's independence in 1948. Jewish saboteurs bombed the hotel in 1946 in their campaign to drive out the British.

boudreaux@latimes.com

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