Blair Seeks to Bolster Abbas, Kick-start Talks

British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Jerusalem last night and is scheduled to meet Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah this morning. Blair's visit is primarily aimed at bolstering Abbas' image among the Palestinian moderates.

Following his meeting in Ramallah, the British leader will meet with Prime Minister Olmert at his office in Jerusalem.

Blair is also scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Preparatory talks on behalf of the British prime minister were held yesterday in Jerusalem by his special envoy to the Middle East, Lord Michael Levy.

At the center of Blair's meetings today will be the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the building of government institutions that could function in a future Palestinian state.

Political sources in Jerusalem last night did not attribute any special significance to Blair's visit, and noted that the British leader travels abroad often because of domestic weakness.

At a press conference last week, in which he announced his plans to visit the area, Blair said that the situation in the Palestinian Authority was desperate, and that it was very important to try and break out of the impasse.

Blair is of the view that the international community needs a Palestinian government with which it can engage.

The British prime minister is convinced that the opportunity that has been created following the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinians should not be allowed to slip by.

Blair said that the Palestinians are faced with a crucial decision: forming a government of national unity or an interim government that will lead them to elections.

The British leader said the international community should not diverge from the Quartet's conditions put before the Palestinian government: recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept all previous agreements between the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and Israel.

Blair vowed to cooperate with any Palestinian government that accepts the three preconditions set by the international community and offer it assistance.

Saying that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of his priorities, Blair said that during his last visit to the region, in September, he was convinced that all sides would like to see progress and that a continued conflict only strengthened extremist elements in the Middle East.

Blair has also explored recently the possibility of renewing talks along the Syrian track and dispatched his foreign policy adviser, Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus a month and a half ago. The British diplomat's visit to Syria was coordinated with Washington.

Blair's views on the need to renew the peace process on the Israeli-Palestinian, and possibly also the Syrian track, in order to prevent the strengthening of extremists in the region, received a boost recently by the publication of the Baker-Hamilton Report, which advocated similar action.