- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

JERUSALEM — International Mideast negotiators today searched for ways to revive peace talks after Hamas‘ takeover of the Gaza Strip, and U.S. officials said they expected to name outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a senior envoy. 2:38 p.m.

The gathering of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers came a day after the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders held a summit in a unified stance against Hamas.

Representatives of the Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — met for nearly three hours at the American Consulate in Jerusalem.

Heading into the meeting, a U.N. spokesman said the envoys had “no set agenda” and would discuss “recent developments and the way forward.” The talks were the first by the Quartet since Hamas took control of Gaza, a development that has complicated peace prospects. The Islamic militant Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

In Washington, deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the Quartet members are expected to release simultaneous statements tomorrow.

He would not discuss the prospects of Mr. Blair being named the group’s envoy but said the meeting in Jerusalem had included a discussion about such a post and what its duties might be.

“They have talked about the idea … of having an envoy, having someone who would be available on behalf of the Quartet to work on a variety of issues, including efforts to help support the development of Palestinian Authority institutions,” Mr. Casey told reporters.

He would not be drawn out when asked specifically about Mr. Blair but said the outgoing prime minister “is someone who certainly is dedicated to achieving peace in the Middle East.”

Neither Mr. Casey nor other U.S. officials would discuss reports of Russian objections to Mr. Blair, but several said they did not expect the announcement to be held up.

Mr. Blair himself did not rule out the idea today.

“I think that anybody who cares about greater peace and stability in the world knows that a lasting and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential,” he said in London. “As I have said on many occasions, I would do whatever I could to help such a resolution come about.”

Yesterday’s summit at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea was meant to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed Fatah party was severely weakened when rival Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. The Hamas takeover has left the Palestinians with two governments — Abbas’ new Cabinet based in the West Bank and the Hamas rulers of Gaza, who are internationally isolated.

At the summit, the leaders committed to work for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which have been stalled since 2001. The Quartet are the sponsors of the 2003 “road map,” a peace plan that never got off the ground.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged yesterday to release 250 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and “substantially” improve Palestinian movement in the West Bank by lifting some of the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks in the area. He said he would hold “frequent meetings” with Mr. Abbas’ new government.

The Arab leaders hope the high-profile gathering can lead to a resumption of the long-stalled peace process, rally Palestinian support behind Mr. Abbas and isolate Hamas after the Islamic militant group’s stunning victory in Gaza.

Today, a Hamas official who has been in touch with the captors of an Israeli soldier captured near the Gaza border a year ago said the corporal was wounded in the raid and is being held in unsanitary conditions.

Hamas militants released a recorded message yesterday from Cpl. Gilad Shalit saying that his health is failing and that he needs hospital treatment. It was the first sign of life from the 20-year-old soldier since he was seized.

Osama al-Muzaini, a Hamas official who was the group’s liaison with Cpl. Shalit’s captors until contacts broke down in March, told a Gaza radio station that the captive’s living conditions are “not as healthy as needed for an injured person.”

“Shalit needs more medical care, which was not available, regrettably, because of the security situation,” he said. “His injury has not healed.”

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