Mideast Quartet Approves Blair as Special Envoy

Former British PM Tony Blair

Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday the Quartet of mediators in the Israeli-Arab conflict had approved former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the group's special envoy.

"Tony Blair's candidacy was proposed by the British side and supported by the Quartet members," Sergei Lavrov said.

Lavrov quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying in a telephone conversation with Blair Tuesday, the day before his resignation, that his foreign policy expertise would come in useful in tackling acute international problems.

"We have agreed on the mandate for Tony Blair as the Quartet's special envoy," Lavrov said, adding that the British politician would coordinate consultations between the UN, the EU, the United States and Russia and preside over Palestinian progress towards statehood.

Tony Blair, who officially handed the premiership over to his former finance chief Gordon Brown earlier in the day, is a controversial figure in the Middle East, due to his staunch support for U.S. foreign policy, his involvement in the Iraq war, and his refusal to condemn Israel's bombing of Lebanon last summer.

The Quartet mediators have reinvigorated efforts to push peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians forward, now that the Palestinian territories have undergone a split into Gaza, controlled by Islamist group Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah.

Abbas's emergency government in the West bank has received the international community's backing, while Hamas is still considered a terrorist organization by Israel and Western powers.

Moscow has consistently urged dialogue between Fatah and Hamas, while Washington and Israel have moved to isolate the Islamists and support the more moderate Abbas. Hamas won a resounding parliamentary election victory at the start of 2006, but after the group's violent takeover of Gaza, Abbas ousted Hamas from the coalition government and formed an emergency Cabinet.

In a new outbreak of gun violence in eastern Gaza on Wednesday morning, Israeli troops killed 12 Palestinians, mostly militants, and wounded 45.

The Russian foreign minister, who met earlier Wednesday with President Abbas in the West Bank, said the Quartet could meet in mid-July.

"The ministerial session of the Quartet should be held not earlier than in two weeks' time. I expect we will hold this meeting by mid-July," he said. He also said Russia's Foreign Ministry was not planning to meet with Hamas any time soon.

At his meeting with the Palestinian leader, Abbas pledged to cooperate with the Hamas-led parliament, Lavrov said. "The PNA [Palestinian National Authority] leader told me he intended to cooperate with parliament, where Hamas holds a majority, in line with Palestinian laws," the diplomat said.

Abbas had earlier ruled out contacts with the Islamists following weeks of fighting in Gaza, which left at least 115 people dead and hundreds injured.

At the talks in the West Bank's Ramallah, Lavrov said Moscow condemned attempts to undermine Palestinian statehood and called for a unified Palestinian state to be established as soon as possible.

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Source: AFP

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