CAIRO (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Tony Blair explored options for Middle East peace in Egypt on Saturday as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for early elections to break a deadlock between rival factions.
Blair, speaking earlier in Turkey, predicted Abbas would come up with a way to end a stalemate with Islamist Hamas over forming a unity government. British officials said they saw elections as a way forward.
Abbas also said he would pursue in the meantime efforts to form a national unity government which could persuade Western countries to end sanctions imposed on the Hamas administration.
Blair, who will travel on to Israel, the Palestinian territories and the United Arab Emirates, said violence in past days between Abbas’s security forces and Hamas supporters showed Palestinians urgently needed to form a government that Israel, Europe and the United States would be ready to talk to.
“I think the most important thing is that on the Palestinian side, one way or another, we have a fully functioning authority with which the rest of us can deal,” he said in Ankara.
“This is what I hope we will be able to agree during … this visit,” he added.
Blair’s spokesman said before Abbas’s speech that new elections could break the logjam between Palestinian factions.
Hamas rejected as a coup attempt the call for early elections but Britain says Hamas, which won elections in January and has a parliamentary majority, should not control the agenda.
“You either allow Hamas to have a veto on any political process or not,” the spokesman said. “You can’t reward extremism. Even if you move to elections that at least is moving forward.”
Britain would support a unity government provided it accepted Western demands that it recognize Israel and renounce violence, irrespective of the position of individual members of that government, the spokesman added.
In Cairo, Blair tapped Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on his ideas on the peace process. Egypt plays an important role in mediation between Israel and the Palestinians.
British officials say he wants to relay to Abbas Egyptian and Turkish thoughts on the consequences of any moves he may make to form a government or call elections.
Egypt is in daily direct contact with both parties and Britain has announced no specific new proposals of its own.
Political analyst Mohamed el-Sayed Said said Blair had no credibility in the Middle East after taking part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and failing to make any progress in persuading the United States to work for Israeli-Palestinian peace .
“What is he expecting to achieve when the Americans have no interest in promoting Middle East peace and when the Europeans are still imposing the economic blockade (on the Hamas government). It is very doubtful he can do anything,” said Said, deputy director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank.
The Egyptian government is interested in what Blair has to say but has no great expectations that his presence will lead to any progress, one Egyptian official said.
Blair, in his 10th year in office, is keen to help resuscitate the Middle East peace process before he resigns next year, seeking to secure a foreign policy legacy other than Iraq.
Blair sees progress between Israel and the Palestinians as helpful to ending bloodshed in Iraq, where post-invasion conflict has damaged Britain’s reputation in the region and eroded the prime minister’s popularity at home.