Blair mum on expanding mandate

Abbas eager for new Quartet envoy to take proactive role in peace process.

blair peres 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
blair peres 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair was very much in a listening mode during a full day of talks Tuesday with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, telling reporters that this first visit in his new capacity was intended "to listen, learn and reflect." Blair, after meeting in the morning with President Shimon Peres, said he felt "a sense of possibility, but whether that sense of possibility can be translated into something, that is something that needs to be worked at and thought about over time." In addition to Peres, Blair - on his second day of meetings - met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad in Ramallah. Blair's meeting with Olmert took place late Tuesday evening at the prime minister's residence. Blair is scheduled to leave Wednesday morning.
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  • 'Tony Blair is not our friend' Olmert emphasized the importance of security to Blair during their meeting, and said that he thought it should be one of the focuses of Blair's institution-building roles. Olmert also said there was also a need to encourage private investment in the West Bank. The prime minister said that Israel was committed to allowing much freer mobility for the Palestinians in the West Bank. Sources in Olmert's office said that the meeting was held in a "very positive and friendly atmosphere," and stressed that the two men knew each other well. Olmert said that he would fully cooperate with Blair's mission, "do anything to assist him," and meet with him whenever he came to the region. A participant in one of the Tuesday meetings said that Blair gave the impression of someone "who came here to learn." "He didn't promise anything, or act bombastically or majestically," the source said. "He is learning, and trying to set up his office here." The source said that Blair did not discuss his mandate or his authority. Abbas, however, urged Blair in their meeting to expand his mission so that it would include reviving the peace process. PA officials said Abbas wanted to see Blair involved in the peace process and not only in helping the Palestinians improve the economy and build institutions, which is currently Blair's mandate. Blair has been charged by the Quartet with concentration on reform, economic development and institutional capacity inside the PA. "The president stressed during the meeting the need to work toward ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a two-state solution," said top PA official Saeb Erekat, who participated in the meeting. "The time has come to establish real mechanisms for achieving peace in the Middle East. We demanded timetables and for moving forward with the peace process so that we could establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital." Asked about Blair's mandate, Erekat added: "There has been much talk about the limited mandate of Blair and that he will deal only with the economy, good governance and public security. But how can we separate between these issues and the political process? How can we talk about building an economy and institutions for the future state while Israel is continuing to build settlements and the fence and confiscate our lands?" Fayad, meanwhile, briefed Blair on the PA's needs from donor nations for the rest of the year. Fayad said after the meeting that Blair had come to listen to the positions of all parties and expressed hope that he would get involved in the peace process in the future. In Gaza City, a senior Hamas official described Blair as a "Trojan Horse" who was coming to Ramallah carrying gifts, money and advice for Fayad. Ahmed Yusef, political adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, called on Blair to honor the results of the January 2006 parliamentary election that brought Hamas to power and resume financial aid to all the Palestinians. Yusuf said Haniyeh was prepared to work with the international community to achieve real peace in the region and called on the Quartet to launch a dialogue with the Hamas government. Peres, in comments after his meeting with the former British prime minister, told him: "your success is our success, your dreams are our dreams." Peres said that there was now a serious window of opportunity to advance peace, but added he was afraid that the opportunity would not last long. During Blair's first meeting of the day, with Netanyahu, he heard the Likud head stress that the emphasis in West Bank should be on economics, not the political situation. Netanyahu told Blair that the Palestinians were too weak to make political agreements with Israel, and that politics should wait, and could be driven forward by positive economic dynamics. According to a participant in the meeting, Netanyahu spelled out how private enterprise and entrepreneurship in the West Bank could yield rapid results in terms of economic growth, job creation and a sense of optimism. That optimism, he told Blair, could be used to promote political optimism. Netanyahu also discussed with Blair the need to contain "the Gaza story," so that it didn't spill over into the West Bank, and the role that Jordan, as well as Israel and the PA itself, needed to play in establishing security there. Netanyahu also talked about Iran and the threat that radical Islam posed both to moving forward with the Palestinians, and to the whole region. No matter what was achieved with the Palestinians, it would be derailed, Netanyahu said, if Iran made advances in the region through its proxies or gained nuclear capability. Blair said that he hoped that moving the Israeli-Palestinian track forward could help to create a moderate coalition that could serve as a counterweight to Iran. Meanwhile, the US State Department announced Tuesday that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to the Middle East from July 30 to August 2. During her stops in Sharm e-Sheikh, Egypt and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she will be accompanied by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; the two will meet with their counterparts to discuss ways in which Iraq's neighbors can help advance the cause of security and stability in that country. While in Sharm e-Sheikh, Rice will meet with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Egypt, and Jordan to consult on regional issues. Rice also will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.