By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007
Pledging to make headway where others have failed, Tony Blair made his debut as the new Middle East envoy at a meeting in Portugal yesterday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and representatives of the European Union and Russia.
"There is no more important issue for peace and security in the world," Blair said at the Lisbon meeting of the Quartet, the group orchestrating Middle East peace efforts. "I'm nothing if not an optimist."
The Quartet endorsed President Bush's July 16 initiative to jump-start the moribund peace process with a meeting this fall of Israel and Arab countries willing to consider recognizing Israel. The new U.S. plan centers around helping Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stabilize the West Bank and engage in revived peace talks, while isolating the Hamas Islamic movement currently in control of Gaza. The Quartet pledged to provide humanitarian aid to stranded Palestinians in Gaza.
But in a reflection of the obstacles ahead, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad huddled with the leaders of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Damascus yesterday to chart their own future course for the Middle East. The four parties are the primary opponents of U.S. plans for the Middle East peace process.
After bilateral talks, Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to deepen their alliance and warned Western powers to stand back. "The enemies of the region should abandon plans to attack the interests of this region, or they will be burned by the wrath of the region's people," Ahmadinejad said at a joint news conference. He described ties with Syria as "progressing daily" and "in every field and along all lines."
Assad said Ahmadinejad's visit took on special importance, given the "circumstances changing rapidly" in the region, reflecting the polarization pitting pro-Western governments against hard-line or Islamic parties.
Ahmadinejad met separately with Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, who made a rare trip out of Lebanon since he became a target during the Islamic movement's month-long war with Israel last year. Iran provided the rockets and missiles that have made Hezbollah the most powerful nongovernment armed force in the region, capable of waging the longest war Israel has fought. U.S. officials have expressed increasing concerns about the flow of arms back into Lebanon.
Asked at the news conference if he expects another "hot summer," Ahmadinejad said, "We hope that the hot weather of this summer would coincide with similar victories for the region's peoples and with consequent defeat for the region's enemies."
On his one-day visit, the Iranian leader also met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Iran provides financial aid and arms to the Islamic party, which won democratic elections in the Palestinian Authority 18 months ago. A senior Hamas spokesman said Ahmadinejad promised continued support for the movement, which wrested control of Gaza last month in a bloody five-day purge of security forces loyal to Abbas.
In Lisbon, Blair said recent events generated "a sense that we can regain momentum," which could make "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 is scheduled to travel to the region to develop an agenda to stabilize the Palestinian Authority and help make the transition to a real state.
Rice ruled out Hamas's participation in the forthcoming conference unless it first recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces terrorism. The Islamic party "knows what is expected for international respectability," she said at a Quartet news conference.
But the United States' top diplomat also said a Palestinian state cannot be achieved without Israel first ending its occupation of the West Bank. "We need from the Israelis a recognition of -- and politics based on a recognition -- that the future of Israel lies in places like the Negev and Galilee, not in the continued occupation of the West Bank," Rice said in an unusually blunt comment about the closest U.S. ally in the region.