Blair makes first appearance at meeting of Quartet

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed Tony Blair as a historic and passionate leader on Thursday, saying his debut as Middle East envoy could breathe new life into long-stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, she defended the decision to limit Blair's mandate to helping Palestinians develop their infrastructure and economy, saying his role would compliment US-led diplomatic efforts - and that there was plenty of work for everyone. "This is a very skilled, respected, historic figure in many ways in the world, who is absolutely dedicated to democracy, to building a better Middle East," Rice said aboard a plane en route to a high-level meeting in this coastal European capital of the Middle East Quartet. The meeting - which brings together the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - will be the first since the hardline Islamic Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah last month.