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Mideast Quartet May Appoint Blair An Envoy

International Mideast negotiators met in Jerusalem on Tuesday, searching for ways to revive peace talks in the wake of Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip earlier this month.

The gathering of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace makers — The U.S., EU, U.N and Russia — came a day after the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders held a summit in a unified stance against Hamas.

Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be named on Wednesday as special envoy for the international diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East with a portfolio focused on Palestinian economic and political reform, a senior U.S. official said.

Blair did not rule out the idea when asked in London Tuesday.

"I think that anybody who cares about greater peace and stability in the world knows that a lasting and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential," Blair said. "As I have said on many occasions, I would do whatever I could to help such a resolution come about."

In other developments:

  • Deposed Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh warned Tuesday that Israel was trying to divide the Palestinians. "We draw the attention of the Palestinian leaders and the Arab leaders to the danger of (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert's baiting policy, which aims at dividing the unity of the Palestinian people," Haniyeh said in Gaza City. But he also said he was prepared to begin talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas immediately about solving the Palestinians' internal problems peacefully.
  • A Hamas official who has been in touch with the captors of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit said Tuesday that the young corporal was wounded in the raid in which he was snatched a year ago and is being held in unsanitary conditions. The official, Osama al-Muzaini, spoke a day after Hamas militants released a recorded message from Shalit saying that his health is failing and he needs hospital treatment. It was the first sign of life from the 20-year-old soldier since he was abducted by Palestinian raiders from an army post inside Israel and taken to a Gaza hideout one year ago.
  • The number of people in the Gaza Strip relying on food handouts has increased since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control there two weeks ago, the U.N. food agency said Tuesday. About 60 commercial trucks and 11 carrying food aid were passing through the Sufa cargo crossing on the Israel-Gaza border Tuesday, spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume told The Associated Press. Still, "this number has increased, and it is increasing daily because of the situation," she said.

    The Israeli press reported that Russian objections reportedly had delayed Blair's appointment, although Moscow did not veto it.

    "The Russians are the least enthusiastic about creating the position and least enthusiastic about Blair, but they didn't object," a senior U.S. official told the Associated Press, disputing the Israeli reports. "No one objected."

    Palestinians are not enthusiastic about Blair, because of his support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for not condemning Israel's attacks in Lebanon during last summer's battle with Hezbollah.

  • A spokesman for Hamas told the BBC "the experience of our people with Blair was bad" and his appointment "may even make things worse."

    Representatives of the Quartet met for nearly three hours at the American Consulate in Jerusalem.

    "They have talked about the idea ... of having an envoy, having someone who would be available on behalf of the quartet to work on a variety of issues, including efforts to help support the development of Palestinian Authority institutions," Casey told reporters, although he would not discuss the prospects of Blair filling that post.

    Heading into the meeting, U.N. spokesman said the envoys had "no set agenda" and would discuss "recent developments and the way forward." The talks were the first by the Quartet since Hamas took control of Gaza, a development that has complicated peace prospects. The Islamic militant Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction.

    Participants left without speaking to the press, and details on the talks weren't immediately available.

    Speaking to reporters later during a visit to the West Bank town of Ramallah, the U.S. representative, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, would say only that the Jerusalem meeting "went well."

    "You'll hear more later," he added, without elaborating.

    Monday's summit at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea was meant to bolster Abbas, whose Western-backed Fatah party was severely weakened when rival Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. The Hamas takeover has left the Palestinians with two governments — Abbas' new Cabinet based in the West Bank, and the Hamas rulers of Gaza, who are internationally isolated.

    At the summit, the leaders committed to work for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which have been stalled since 2001. The Quartet are the sponsors of the 2003 "road map," a peace plan that never got off the ground.

    Israel plans to release 250 prisoners from the Fatah faction of Abbas, to strengthen his moderate government in the West Bank after the fall of Gaza to Hamas, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

    Olmert also pledged "substantially" improve Palestinian movement in the West Bank by lifting some of the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks in the area. He said he would hold "frequent meetings" with Abbas' new government.

    Many Israelis, however, believe Abbas is powerless, and that the defeat of his forces in Gaza is proof.

    "Can he be saved? The answer is an unequivocal, 'No,'" said former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas.

    The Arab leaders hope the high-profile gathering can lead to a resumption of the long-stalled peace process, rally Palestinian support behind Abbas and isolate Hamas after the Islamic militant group's stunning victory in Gaza.

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