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Israel has the "utmost respect" for outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his appointment as the Quartet's Middle East envoy would be a "terrific decision," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Tuesday, as Quartet envoys meeting in Jerusalem discussed the appointment.
Blair's appointment is expected to be made Wednesday when he formally ends his tenure as prime minister, with simultaneous statements to be issued in Washington, New York, Brussels and Moscow. The Quartet is made up of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN.
Lavrov, whose Hamas remarks irked J'lem, arrives
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert phoned Blair Tuesday, on the last day of his tenure, and said he has proven to be a "true friend" of Israel. If Blair would take on the new position, Olmert said, Israel would cooperate with him "fully."
Blair, in London, indicated a willingness to take on the non-paying job.
"I think that anybody who cares about greater peace and stability in the world knows that a lasting and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential," he said. "As I have said on many occasions, I would do whatever I could to help such a resolution come about."
US State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey on Tuesday would not discuss the prospects of Blair being named the group's envoy, but said the Quartet envoys meeting in Jerusalem discussed the position and its mandate.
"They have talked about the idea... of having an envoy, having someone who would be available on behalf of the Quartet to work on a variety of issues, including efforts to help support the development of Palestinian Authority institutions," he told reporters.
The Quartet has been without an envoy since a frustrated James Wolfensohn quit the job in May 2006, following the establishment of a Hamas-led PA government. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the time that conditions were not conducive for the appointment of a new envoy.
Israeli officials said Blair would not serve as a negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians, but that his job would focus on "capacity building" in the PA and the development of functional governing institutions. His role would be different than Wolfensohn's, who dealt primarily with economic issues relating to the Gaza Strip following Israel's evacuation.
Israeli officials denied reports Tuesday that Russia had objected to the appointment. Visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not mention the topic in a statement he made to reporters in Tel Aviv Tuesday night before meeting Livni. But he did relate two other contentious issues on the agenda with Israel: Hamas and Russian arms deals with Syria.
Lavrov has called for negotiations between Fatah and Hamas, something Israel opposes for fear that it would lead to another stalemated unity government.
"We do not want Palestine to be torn apart by a civil war," he said. A "united Palestine" was needed by Palestinians, otherwise, it would be impossible to resolve problems, he said.
"We condemn what radicals have done in Gaza," Lavrov said. "Everybody, including Hamas's militant wing, should understand that Palestinian unity cannot be achieved in an uncivilized way."
Regarding the sale of Russian weapons to Damascus, Lavrov said the weapons being sold to Syria did not tip the balance of power in the region.
"Whatever we do in the sphere of military technological cooperation, our activities always conform to Russia's international commitments and the export control rules - some of the strictest in the world," he said.
Lavrov arrived Tuesday afternoon and met immediately with President Elect Shimon Peres.
Peres asked Lavrov, who will meet Wednesday with the families of kidnapped reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, to bring some "sign of life" from their captors in Lebanon.
Lavrov is scheduled to meet Olmert on Wednesday, and then go to Ramallah for a meeting with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He is not scheduled to meet any Hamas leaders, even though Russia has been one of the few non-Muslim countries to maintain contact with the organization.
Lavrov is also expected to discuss during his talks here the plight of Russian nationals, mostly women married to Palestinians, who are stranded inside the Gaza Strip. Russia has already evacuated more than 70 Russian nationals from the area.
AP contributed to this report.
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