Fri, Jun 22, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Bush talks to Blair about peace envoy role

PEACEMAKER REQUIRED A new Middle East envoy would work to help the Palestinians strengthen their institutions in preparation for an eventual independent Palestinian state


US President George W. Bush has talked with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about taking a role as a Middle East peace envoy after he leaves office next week.

Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, the State Department's top diplomat for the Middle East, talked with Blair in London on Wednesday, while the White House and State Department spoke glowingly about the prime minister's credentials but said there was nothing to announce yet.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also expressed support for Blair playing a role in the Middle East.

"Officials in the prime minister's office are aware of this idea and Prime Minister Olmert is very supportive of Prime Minister Blair and of his continuing involvement in the Middle East and the peace process," Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

Blair steps down from office next Wednesday.

"Obviously Prime Minister Blair has been very active and deeply involved in Middle East peace issues throughout his prime ministership," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

She said Blair and Bush speak often.

"It would not surprise me if they have talked about what Prime Minister Blair would like to do following the end of his term ... but we don't have anything to announce today," Perino said.

James Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank, stepped down in April as international Middle East envoy for the Quartet of peacemakers -- the US, EU, UN and Russia. The position envisioned for Blair was said to be enhanced in contrast to Wolfensohn's role.

Members of the Quartet may meet in Paris next week, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has a scheduling conflict and the meet could be postponed.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not say whether the US wants Blair to take the job, but indicated there is a need for a new Middle East envoy.

A new envoy would work to help the Palestinians strengthen their political and economic systems and institutions in preparation for an eventual independent Palestinian state, McCormack said.

"There is, we believe, a need to perform that particular function in working with the Palestinians," McCormack said. "So there is this idea out there of: `Can we identify a person that could fulfill those functions?'"

"I think that the idea has some merit," and should be discussed. "But as for particular individuals, at this point I'm certainly not going to get into it," he said.

Separately, a senior State Department official said that although US officials have explored the job possibility with Blair those discussions are not yet at the point of a job offer. That could come after further discussions among the four Quartet members in the coming days, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

"It's a real, live possibility," the official said, adding that Blair "would be welcomed by the Israelis and the Palestinians and more broadly" among Arab states.

Blair's office refused comment.

"There is a lot of speculation about what the prime minister will do after June 27, but we are simply not going to comment," said a spokeswoman at his Downing Street office, on customary condition of anonymity in line with policy.

During his tenure, Wolfensohn helped negotiate several agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. These efforts, however, hit repeated obstacles, and in some cases, the agreements were not honored.

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