Blair Sees 'Sense of Possibility'

The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 24, 2007; 7:26 PM

JERUSALEM -- Setting out with optimism, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Israel and the Palestinians on Tuesday to seize on a "sense of possibility," and made plans to set up a permanent office in the region to pursue his mission of laying the groundwork for Mideast peace.

More violence underscored Blair's difficulties _ an outbreak of factional clashes among rival Palestinians in the West Bank and an Israeli air raid against Palestinian extremists in the Gaza Strip.

Blair, who visited the region several times during his decade as prime minister, told the Palestinians his first trip as envoy for the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators was intended to gather input for formulating his strategy, officials said.

He had a working dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later Tuesday night and was due to leave early Wednesday.

Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the meeting lasted more than two hours, during which the Israeli leader pledged his full cooperation with Blair's efforts. The two men agreed to meet on Blair's future visits.

Blair was to return in early September and hoped to have an office in place in Jerusalem for a full time staff. His spokesman said conversations about office space at a U.N. complex were at an early stage, and that Blair himself plans to spend about one week every month in the area.

"I think there is a sense of possibility, but whether that sense of possibility can be translated into something, that is something that needs to be worked at and thought about over time," Blair said after meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Peres, speaking at Blair's side, added a note of caution to his own optimism. "I feel there is a serious window of opportunity to advance peace," he said. "I don't know the duration of this opportunity, I am afraid it is not too long."

Blair has been tasked by the Quartet _ the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia _ to prepare the foundations for a stable, economically strong West Bank government that could lead the Palestinians into statehood, but to leave the hard political issues at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict alone.

Israel says those questions can only be resolved in bilateral negotiations between it and the Palestinians.

"The Prime Minister stated that he thinks it's worthwhile to advance many small issues that will succeed rather than a few large issues that would fail," Eisin said of Tuesday evening's talks.

She said the two men discussed prospects for Palestinian economic development, aid and ways to encourage investment in the West Bank, and that Israel committed to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank.

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