LISBON, (Reuters) – The Quartet of Middle East mediators will meet in Lisbon on July 19 at what could be former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first meeting as the group’s envoy, a Portuguese Foreign Ministry source said on Friday.
The Quartet comprises the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be in Portugal on that day and is expected to attend.
Blair, appointed by the Quartet on June 27 — the day he left office after 10 years in power — might attend, according to diplomatic sources. “I still don’t know but I think yes (that Blair is coming),” the Foreign Ministry source said, adding that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov might also attend.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not confirm there would be a Quartet meeting in Lisbon next week. “I have not heard that all of the final arrangements and final agreements have been made for one,” he told Reuters.
An EU official in Brussels said the meeting in Lisbon was not likely to involve Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, as talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were progressing. “The Olmert-Abbas track is going well, the idea is to let that run and not disturb that,” the official said.
Olmert has said he expects to meet Abbas early next week to discuss, among other things, Israel’s gesture to free 250 members of Abbas’s Fatah faction from jail. Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The Quartet’s meeting will also be its first since Hamas captured Gaza from Abbas’ Fatah movement in June. That transformed the Palestinian political and security landscape, effectively dividing the Palestinians between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
The Quartet last met in Germany on May 30 and Portugal has now assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the EU.
Since his appointment, Blair has sought a broader role as Middle East envoy that would give him more direct involvement in peacemaking, diplomats have told Reuters. “The Quartet will not give him a free hand, but Blair is a huge political figure and will to a certain extent do what he wants to do,” said the EU official. The Quartet had defined Blair’s role as raising funds for the Palestinians, building their ruling institutions and promoting their economic development.
Privately, politicians in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority display little optimism about the prospects for resuming negotiations on a Palestinian state.
Olmert is deeply unpopular and in a poor position to make concessions that Abbas is seeking, while the Palestinians are hobbled by the division between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet the world powers are keen to see more stability and U.S. President George W. Bush, whose tenure has been marked by problems in Iraq, has reaffirmed that he would like to see a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office in 18 months.