blair smiles 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday kicked off his first visit to the Middle East as the international community's new envoy to the region, hoping to add new momentum to fledgling peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.
The newly appointed envoy for the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators - the US, EU, UN and Russia - arrived in Israel for his first visit in the new post. During the two-day visit, Blair planned to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and other top officials.
But amid expectation that Blair may want to widen his mandate and talk to Hamas, Israeli officials made clear Sunday that this was unacceptable.
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Blair's mandate, as defined by the Quartet, was to focus on developing Palestinian governing institutions. She said this was a "very positive" idea that "could have a real contribution toward moving forward bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians."
Asked how Israel would respond if Blair said he needed to talk to Hamas to do his job, Eisin said, "We would state very clearly that there can be no compromise with Hamas."
Hamas spokesmen warned Blair over the weekend that ignoring the organization would undermine his credibility.
Blair arrived in Israel on Monday and is expected to look into the possibility of setting up shop at Jerusalem's Government House, where the British ruled Palestine during the days of the British Mandate.
According to British press reports, Blair has expressed interest in using Government House as his base. The compound, located in Jerusalem's Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, houses the offices of the UN Truce Supervisory Organization and the UN's special envoy to the Middle East. The last Quartet envoy, James Wolfensohn, used the American Colony Hotel as his base of operations.
The former prime minister's mandate this time, however, has been defined by the Quartet as concentrating on reform, economic development and institution-building in the Palestinian Authority.
Blair is scheduled to begin his meetings Monday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. On Tuesday he is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.
Blair is also scheduled to meet in Ramallah on Tuesday with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Outside of a possible photo opportunity with Peres, Blair is not expected to hold a press conference or give any interviews.
Blair, at a Quartet meeting in Lisbon last Thursday, said, "I hope I can offer something in bringing about a solution to this issue that is of such fundamental importance to the world." Unlike visits by Blair when he was Britain's prime minister, this visit was not preceded by many preliminary meetings. Israel expects Blair to discuss ways Israel can help in the building up of the PA governing institutions.
Blair is scheduled to leave Wednesday, the day Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib are scheduled to arrive as representatives of the Arab League for preliminary talks with Israel on the Arab Peace Plan.
Eisin, pointing out that this will be the first visit by a delegation representing the Arab League, said the two foreign ministers were "coming to present in their own words the Arab Initiative for Peace. This is an important meeting. We are happy to listen to what they have to say, and then present Israel's positions."
Eisin said Israel hoped the arrival of the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers would "be the opening that would lead to more direct participation of Arab League member states, beyond Egypt and Jordan."
Gheit and Khatib were selected by the Arab League to represent it in talks with Israel because they are the only two Arab League countries, with the exception of Mauritania, that have formal diplomatic ties with Israel.