US, Europe Firm on Shunning Hamas

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

LISBON, Portugal – Tony Blair waded headlong into the murky world of Middle East peacemaking on Thursday, dismissing concerns that he would fail like so many before him and announcing he would travel to the region.

The former British prime minister brushed aside suggestions that his limited mandate as special envoy to the international diplomatic Quartet _ and the group’s refusal to deal with the hard-line Palestinian movement Hamas _ would hamstring his mission.

“I’m nothing if not an optimist,” Blair said after a meeting that brought together senior representatives from the Quarter’s members _ the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. “I will probably have need for all that quality of optimism in this task ahead, but I am determined to try.”

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said “a good deal of good luck and optimism” would be required to achieve peace. Talks have sputtered since the second Palestinian uprising in 2001.

Blair gave no specifics on when he would make his first visit to the region, though it is expected in the coming days, and he planned to return later for a longer trip.

He said he intended to brief the Quartet for the first time in September. Israeli President Shimon Peres has said he would meet with Blair in Israel on Tuesday; there has been no confirmation from Blair.

In a statement after the Quartet’s meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as all states in the region, to work closely with Blair. He said the diplomatic group “encouraged robust international support for his efforts.”

Blair pointed to his successful efforts to push for peace in Northern Ireland, a goal which once, too, had appeared impossible.

“Things can change,” he said. At the same time, he cautioned against raising false hopes.

“There is a sense that we can regain momentum. That’s the crucial thing. And if we are able to regain that momentum, then a whole lot of things become possible, not least the fact that those people of peace can then feel that the force is with them and not with those who want conflict,” Blair said.

Despite his enthusiasm, many believe Blair’s role is too limited because it only involves developing Palestinian institutions and their economy. He is also only to deal with moderate forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is only in charge in the West Bank following Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza Strip last month.

Ahead of the meeting, Rice and Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, rejected any dealings with Hamas.

“Hamas, I think, knows what is expected for international respectability,” Rice told a news conference in Lisbon shortly before the Quartet principals met with Blair.

She said Hamas must recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces terrorism, and ruled out its participation in an upcoming peace meeting called by President Bush for the fall.

Hamas’s power grab in Gaza split the Palestinian leadership. But it also led Israel and others to seek ways to shore up Abbas.

On Thursday, a top PLO body gave Abbas preliminary approval for new presidential and legislative elections. The high-stakes gamble was meant to sideline Hamas, but also was bound to set off new confrontations with the Islamic militants and cement the West Bank-Gaza divide.

Rice said she sensed a “kind of momentum” building in Middle East peace efforts, including Blair’s appointment as Quartet envoy and Bush’s call for a meeting this fall between Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.

On her way to Lisbon, she said Blair’s debut as envoy could breathe new life into peace efforts.

At the same time, she defended the decision to limit Blair’s mandate. She said his role would complement U.S.-led diplomatic efforts and that there was plenty of work for everyone.

“This is a very skilled, respected, historic figure in many ways in the world, who is absolutely dedicated to democracy, to building a better Middle East,” Rice told reporters aboard her plane.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, no stranger to Middle East peace efforts, said Wednesday that he saw no solution to the conflict other than engaging with Hamas. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU.

“I think you’d have to find some way to talk to Hamas,” Powell said in an interview with National Public Radio. “As unpleasant a group they may be, and as distasteful as I find some of their positions, I think that through the Middle East Quartet … or through some means, Hamas has to be engaged.”

A service of the Associated Press(AP)