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US Backs Quartet Envoy to Lay Groundwork for Palestinian State

The United States Wednesday endorsed the idea of a special envoy from the international Middle East Quartet to lay groundwork for Palestinian statehood. Bush administration officials say outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair would be ideal for such a post, but stop short of saying he has been asked to assume the role when he leaves office next week. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Middle East peace efforts are in need of a boost after last week's takeover of Gaza by the militant Islamic Hamas movement. And officials here are clearly promoting the outgoing British Prime Minister for what would be a new role as special envoy of the Quartet.

The Quartet, which includes the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, issued a "road map" to Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2003 though scant progress has been made on its implementation.

Several news outlets reported Wednesday that President Bush has talked to Mr. Blair about becoming the Quartet envoy after he steps down next Wednesday.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack did not deny the reports outright and also spoke glowingly about Mr. Blair's credentials for such a post:

"Prime Minister Blair is somebody who is passionate about the issues of the Middle East, and who has played a very constructive role in the international system on these issues - a clear leader within the international system, of very high standing," he noted. "And so I would expect that Prime Minister Blair certainly would have a variety of different options from which he could choose once he leaves office. But as for any particular comment on these news stories, I'm going to avoid that at this point."

McCormack said there is a need for a Quartet representative who could coordinate efforts to build Palestinian economic and political institutions in anticipation of statehood.

He said the mandate would be broader than that of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who tried to coordinate infrastructure-building in Gaza for the Quartet after Israel's withdrawal from the area in 2005.

The Quartet was to have convened at the ministerial level next week with Arab League diplomats in Egypt.

But spokesman McCormack confirmed that those plans have been scrapped. He said the Quartet principals, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would meet soon, outside of the Middle East, to discuss the crisis in the Palestinian areas.

The Quartet partners conferred by telephone last Friday after the Hamas takeover in Gaza. They issued a statement supporting the "necessity and legitimacy" of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to dissolve the unity government with Hamas and declare an emergency.

That was followed by announcements by the United States and European Union that they were lifting their embargoes on direct aid to the Palestinian government now that it excludes Hamas.

McCormack defended the decision in the face of criticism by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who said in Dublin that the United States and E.U. are trying to divide the Palestinian people by aiding only Mr. Abbas and his mainstream Fatah movement.

The spokesman said the United States is "absolutely" treating Fatah and Hamas differently, since it considers the latter a terrorist organization.

He said U.S. concern for Gaza Palestinians is evidenced by the American pledge Monday of $40 million in new aid to UNWRA (the U.N.'s Palestinian refugee agency).