J'lem: Blair Will Seek to Advance Israel-PA Negotiations

Tony Blair, the new representative of the international Quartet of peace mediators, is expected to stray from his mandate and try to further diplomatic talks between Israel and the Palestinians, political sources said yesterday. Sources in the Foreign Ministry say that Blair is unlikely to deal with "technical" matters - building institutions and mobilizing the support of donor countries - and will focus on furthering the diplomatic process.

"From this point of view, Israel is less enthusiastic," a political source in Jerusalem said yesterday.

Blair is scheduled to arrive in Israel today for a series of meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The former British prime minister is on his first visit to the region in his new capacity, and senior political sources in Jerusalem say he will begin studying the Palestinian Authority's situation before starting his official mandate of helping the Palestinians build institutions of state.

Some sources expressed the hope yesterday that Blair would not seek to broaden this mandate and attempt to negotiate sensitive political issues.

"As British Prime Minister, he only had superficial familiarity with Israel and the Palestinians, and he will now have to do his homework," one of the sources said.

These sources expect Blair to first seek to gain the confidence of the two sides in the framework of his mandate, and not rush into any far-reaching efforts that may undermine his mission in the region.

At Israel's Prime Minister's Office and Foreign Ministry, preparations have been underway for Blair's arrival, the first step in what will be a busy week in regional diplomacy. On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt are scheduled to visit Jerusalem as official representatives of the Arab League in an effort to gain Israeli support for the Arab peace initiative.

For their meeting with Blair, Israeli officials plan to send the Quartet envoy two main messages. The first is that Israel welcomes the former British prime minister in his new role. The second is that in the medium and distant future, Israel will work to ensure that Blair will not stray from his mandate, namely the creation of Palestinian institutions of governance.

"The way we understand his mandate, he will concentrate on building institutions in the Palestinian Authority to bolster the chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, and this is what we will discuss with him," a source in the Prime Minister's Office said last night.

"He has a clear mandate to ensure that the PA will be strong and take care of its citizens, and this is something we also want. As far as the final status settlement is concerned - this will be carried out in direct negotiations with the Palestinians," the source said.

In meetings at the Foreign Ministry yesterday, it was decided that Israel should assist Blair in building Palestinian institutions.

According to a senior source at the ministry, "there is no problem with this, as long as it involves assistance to the Palestinians."

Foreign ministry sources said Blair recognizes the importance of promoting political as well as economic issues, but expressed confidence that he will first invest in establishing his credibility with the two sides.

Another source said Blair is likely try to rally extensive international aid from donor nations for the Palestinians, through his network of contacts and personal standing.

The international Quartet, comprising the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, are expected to ask Blair to organize a conference this fall of the forum of donor nations to the Palestinians, headed by Norway.

Blair is scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak today, and will meet with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice Premier Haim Ramon and President Shimon Peres tomorrow.

The Quartet representative has asked to keep a low profile on these meetings, and will only issue a statement to the press after his meeting with Peres.

Blair will also travel to Ramallah tomorrow, where he will meet with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad.

Later, he will dine with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and will leave Israel Wednesday morning.

Blair will be accompanied by a small number of aides, as he is still building his team, which sources estimate will not exceed 20 people representing the Quartet.