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Blair in Middle East in Effort to Reactivate Peace Process


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the new Mideast peace envoy has begun a two-day trip to the Middle East. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.

Tony Blair met with Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni shortly after he arrived in Israel. Earlier in the day he held talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdel Ilah al-Khatib in Amman.

Mr. Blair meets with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday as the new representative of the Quartet of Mideast Negotiators, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli Foreign Minister, and a key participant in past Mideast peace talks says Mr. Blair will be taken seriously by both Israelis and Palestinians.

"Well I think Tony Blair will obviously be taken seriously for two reasons; one because of his own caliber, and his image, and the reality of him being a friend of Israel. And, the second reason is him being a friend of President Bush," said Ben-Ami.

"These are two major reasons we will make him most welcome him here in Israel. That will be slightly less so perhaps in the Palestinian Authority because the Arab family is more suspicious because of his close association, both to Bush and to Israel," he added.

Last week at a meeting in Portugal, members of the Quartet gave Mr. Blair a mandate to help prepare for an eventual Palestinian state by encouraging reforms and building up institutions in the Palestinian territories.

However, Mr. Blair has no independent authority to negotiate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians - raising questions about his effectiveness in his new role.

While Mr. Blair will hold talks with Mr. Abbas he will have no dealings with Hamas officials who last month seized power in the Gaza Strip effectively dividing the Palestinian territories in two.

Hamas officials criticized his appointment, but say they are willing to talk to the former British prime minister - something that is unlikely to happen because of the Hamas refusal to recognize Israel.

Last week President Bush called for an international peace conference on the Middle East later this year. Later this week the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Jordan are expected to visit Israel to discuss the so-called Arab Peace Plan with Israeli officials. The plan calls for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders in exchange for recognition from Arab states.

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