Blair to meet EU officials ahead of Middle East talks
Solana will meet Abbas and Olmert during trip to region; Portuguese FM: We're at a "critical and decisive phase."
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
New Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair is scheduled to hold talks with European Union officials Tuesday amid renewed international efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana announced he would fly to the region immediately after his lunch with Blair.
Prospects for peace in the region have dimmed since Hamas's recent takeover of the Gaza Strip, which left the Palestinians split between rival leaderships in the coastal territory and the West Bank.
Western leaders who have shunned Hamas have sought to bolster the Fatah-led government of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
On Monday, US President George W. Bush called for an international conference later this year to include Israel, the Palestinian Authority and some of their Arab neighbors to help restart peace talks.
On Solana's trip to the region, he will hold talks with Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
On Thursday, he plans to travel to Portugal for a meeting of senior officials from the EU, United Nations, Russia and United States - the powers that make up the Quartet of would-be Middle East peacemakers.
"We are going into a very critical and decisive phase there," said Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency. Amado told a panel of the European Parliament that he hoped the Lisbon meeting would "give a new boost to the peace process."
Blair took over as chief envoy for the Quartet after he stepped down as British prime minister last month.
Besides Solana, Blair is due to meet with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner.
Blair is expected to hold further talks in Rome and Madrid before traveling to meet US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other members of the Quartet in the Portuguese capital.
Ahead of his meeting with Blair, Italian foreign minister Massimo D'Alema warned against isolating Hamas, saying there is a risk of pushing the movement into the arms of al Qaida.
In Washington, White House officials said Bush consulted with Blair before proposing a conference open to countries in the region that support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush also announced the US would make a new contribution of US$80 million (â‚¬58 million) to help the Palestinians.
Germany welcomed Bush's plan for an international meeting. "By calling an international meeting, the US underlines its determination to stay involved in the peace process in the Middle East," said Ulrich Wilhelm, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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