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(photo credit: AP [file])
Quartet envoy Tony Blair met in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad on Tuesday, as high level diplomatic efforts are under way to get Israel and the PA to draft a joint declaration to be endorsed at the US-sponsored Middle East conference next month.
Blair, who arrived to no fanfare on Monday evening, is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday morning and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the evening. An aid to the former British prime minister said Blair was "obviously talking about some aspects" of the upcoming conference with the sides.
Blair will not be the only high level diplomat to shuttle between the sides to try and ensure agreement. US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch is scheduled to arrive Wednesday and begin preparing the ground for the arrival Sunday of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Rice, who was last here on September 19, is scheduled to arrive from Moscow. According to diplomatic officials, it is not yet clear how many days she will remain, and what other countries she will visit while in the region. The officials said there were no immediate plans for a trilateral meeting between her, Olmert and Abbas.
The officials also said there was no guarantee that, as many expect, she would announce a date and venue for the Middle East conference, widely expected to be in late-November in Annapolis, Maryland.
In a related development, Olmert told visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan at a meeting they held on Monday that the US-sponsored conference was to focus on the Palestinian, not the Syrian, track.
According to officials in the Prime Minister's Office, Babacan said Turkey would like to see Syria participate. Olmert said Damascus was welcome if they were there to give support to the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian track, but that there was no room to expand the meeting to include additional subjects.
Asked Tuesday during a Jerusalem Post interview whether the Golan Heights should come up at the November meeting, Babacan said, "As far as we understand the Arab peace plan is on the table. But there has been yet no formal announcement about the date of the meeting, the place of the meeting, who is going to be invited or what is going to be discussed." The Arab Peace Plan calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Olmert, meanwhile, is scheduled to travel to Paris and London on October 21-23 for his first meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown since they took over their respective offices earlier this year. This will be Olmert's first trip abroad since meeting with President George W. Bush in the US in June.