The State Department said Monday there is no rift between the Bush administration and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair over his new role as envoy for the international Middle East "Quartet." Mr. Blair holds his first meeting Thursday in Lisbon with top officials of the Quartet, which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Mr. Blair was named the Quartet's representative in the Middle East the same day he stepped down as British prime minister June 27.
Since then, there have been persistent media reports that he has been seeking a broader role than the Palestinian infrastructure-building mission described in the initial Quartet announcement.
However, the State Department's top Middle East policy official denies any discord over the Blair mission, and says the former British leader "fully accepts" the mission of helping lay groundwork for an eventual Palestinian state.
In a talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said he was surprised to see reports suggesting Mr. Blair was holding out for a bigger negotiating role, and said the idea has not been raised in discussions with the Quartet parties.
"Mr. Blair, as you know, is a man of great energy and vision and has a lot of experience working in the area," he said. "He's quite excited about this new job and the mandate. He fully accepts that mandate. He participated in helping to shape it. It was agreed within the Quartet. And I don't think there is any tension, frankly, in how it will be interpreted."
Officials here have said repeatedly that Secretary of State Rice expects to retain the lead political role in regional peace efforts. Welch described Blair's infrastructure-building mission as critical to the goal laid out by the Quartet in its 2003 road map to a two state settlement of the Middle East conflict.
He said Mr. Blair will bring "a focus and energy" to helping create institutions the Palestinians need for a responsible state, and to reassure Israelis about the nature of the entity in the West Bank and Gaza they will be dealing with.
The former British leader will discuss his mission Thursday at a Quartet meeting in Lisbon that will include Secretary Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Assistant Secretary Welch spoke here after President Bush's announcement Monday that Rice will chair an international conference later this year aimed at getting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
Mr. Bush said the conference, at an as yet-unannounced date and venue, would bring together Israeli, Palestinian, and other Middle Eastern leaders who support a two-state solution to the conflict, Israel's right to exist, and commit to previous agreements between the parties.
Welch, under questioning, would not say what Arab countries he expects to attend beyond Egypt and Jordan, which have peace treaties with Israel.
But he said acceptance of Israel is implicit in the Arab League's 2003 Middle East peace plan which was reaffirmed this year, and that the U.S. hopes to make the conference a vehicle for dialogue between Israel and Arab League countries with which it does not have formal ties:
"It will take work to get there. But that's our job and that's what he [President Bush] has directed the secretary to do. And we wouldn't be launching ourselves in this enterprise if we didn't have some confidence that there is a willingness in the region to embrace the path to peace. Again, that's at the heart of the Arab initiative and we take them at their word."
Secretary Rice was to have visited the Middle East this week to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But the Jerusalem and Ramallah visits were postponed to accommodate discussions within the administration over the President's Middle East overture and the situation in Iraq.
Rice is now expected to make a broader Middle East trip beginning at the end of this month, part of it in tandem with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, focusing on both Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian issues.