Middle East Quartet to meet with new envoy Blair

( AFP ) - Leaders of the Middle East Quartet meet former British prime minister Tony Blair here Thursday, with the focus on his role as their new special envoy against a backdrop of a renewed US push for peace.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are all due in Portugal, current holders of the rotating EU presidency.

Blair, appointed after his resignation as prime minister on June 27, is expected to set out his plans to lay the groundwork for a future Palestinian state and discuss his remit in the role.

Reports have suggested that the Palestinians want Blair's mandate to be widened, in particular to negotiate with the militant Islamist group Hamas, but that the United States is opposed, branding it a terrorist group.

Discussions were also likely to focus on US President George W. Bush's call Monday for fresh impetus in the peace process, including an international conference within months to revive talks in the decades-old conflict.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, speaking in Washington Tuesday, warned against hopes of concrete outcomes from the meeting.

"I'm not sure that this is going to be a meeting with any new announcements," he told reporters.

"But there's a lot that has happened over the past couple of weeks and it's a good opportunity for them to get together, take stock of what has happened... as well as to look ahead and chart a course out for the next several months," he said.

The Quartet's top diplomats had been due to meet in June but that was postponed after Hamas seized power in Gaza following bitter fighting with forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement.

The United Nations has described the meeting as coming at a "crucial moment" because of recent events, and said it would allow the group's main diplomats to discuss the future direction on the stalled "road map" to peace.

In his speech Monday, Bush threw his support behind Abbas and Fatah by saying that the planned conference, to be chaired by Rice, would be limited to countries who accept the Quartet principles.

While Hamas supports the idea of a Palestinian state, its leaders have yet to reject violence and recognise Israel, likely leaving them out of the conference.

And in a further move to encourage support for Abbas and undercut Hamas, Bush also promised increased aid the Palestinian Authority and called for pan-Arab "donor" nations to meet to consider doing the same.

Bush's proposals won backing from both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas but condemnation from Hamas, who said the conference would only serve "the interests of the Zionist enemy".

Both Ban and Solana welcomed Bush's renewed commitment to a two-state solution while Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who have all been involved in the drive for a settlement, gave a cautiously optimistic response.

Solana flies to Lisbon after a lightning visit to the Middle East Wednesday, where he met Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, new President Shimon Peres, as well as Abbas, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and negotiator Saeb Erakat.

Blair, who is due in Israel and the Palestinian territories next week, met Solana in Brussels Tuesday and heads to the Portuguese capital from Rome and Madrid.

His appointment has been controversial, with critics claiming his reputation as an "honest broker" is tarnished because of Britain's intervention in Iraq and his perceived pro-Israeli, pro-US stance during his 10 years as premier.

But he was successful in largely ending years of sectarian fighting between Protestants and Catholics in British-run Northern Ireland and securing a power-sharing government.

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