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Blair seeks broader Mideast role: Diplomats
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09:49, July 11, 2007

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Tony Blair is pushing for a broader mandate in the Middle East that would give him a more direct role in peacemaking, expanding the limited envoy job that world powers gave him last month, diplomats said yesterday.

The former British prime minister tentatively plans to visit Israel and the occupied West Bank next week for the first time as envoy for the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Senior Western and European diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said talks over Blair's role were still under way and that his visit could be postponed. Quartet officials planned to discuss the issue yesterday in London, they said, adding that talks were also taking place in Brussels.

Few details about Blair's plans have been made public since the Quartet appointed him on June 27, the day he stepped down after 10 years in power. But he has been holding discussions with world leaders about his role, which the Quartet defined as raising funds for the Palestinians, building their ruling institutions and promoting their economic development.

"He is talking to leaders about what he wants to do. He has made clear the capacity-building mandate is not enough," said one senior Western diplomat familiar with the discussions. "He doesn't see himself bound to that. He wants a political role."

A senior European diplomat in Jerusalem involved in the discussions said Blair has delivered a similar message to Quartet members. "As far as Blair is concerned, his mandate has not been finalized," the diplomat said.

Despite some initial resistance within the EU to Blair's appointment, a senior EU diplomat said there was growing support within the bloc for giving him a freer hand politically.

"We think political should come over technical. There is a discussion under way. I don't see him at all being a money collector," the EU diplomat said.

In its June 27 announcement, the Quartet did not spell out any political, mediating role for Blair in reviving the long-stalled peace process.

Many Arab and European commentators seized on the omission as a sign that Blair would be relegated to a peripheral role, leaving any serious peacemaking to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other leaders.

It is unclear whether the Quartet would agree, either formally or informally, to an expanded role for Blair.

"A lot of things still need to be hammered out," a diplomat involved in the Quartet said of Blair's position. "But he is Tony Blair. He can pretty much do whatever he wants."

Some European diplomats have raised questions about Blair's ability to garner broad Palestinian and Arab public support because of his support for the US-led invasion of Iraq and his close ties with US President George W. Bush.

Other officials say support from Bush is precisely Blair's strength in the job because of US influence over Israel.

Washington wants to relaunch statehood talks through President Mahmoud Abbas, who set up an emergency government in the occupied West Bank last month after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.

To bolster Abbas and his secular Fatah faction, Israel has started handing over hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen funds to the Abbas-appointed government and recently agreed to released 250 Fatah prisoners.

But Israel has so far resisted US pressure to negotiate final status issues such as the fate of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and borders.

Hamas, still shunned by the United States and its European allies after winning elections 18 months ago, has sought to cast Blair as an ally of Israel.

Source: China Daily/agencies

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