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US, Quartet partners may name Middle East envoy

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, June 20 (Reuters) The United States and its Quartet partners are considering appointing a Middle East envoy to spearhead talks between Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states, diplomats said today.

Bush administration officials have in recent months discussed the possibility of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who steps down next week, taking the post, though diplomats said it was unclear whether he wanted the job and whether a consensus would be reached within the Quartet of Middle East mediators.

The goal would be to spur negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well as promote an Arab land-for-peace initiative.

Olmert ''thinks Tony Blair is a very positive figure and he would be very happy to see him continue to be actively involved in the Middle East'', Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said.

Blair's office and the White House would neither confirm nor deny that the outgoing British prime minister was a candidate for the envoy post.

''We know there's going to be a lot of speculation over the next few weeks about what he's going to do next, but we're not going to comment on any of it,'' Blair's spokesman said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said: ''We're engaged...

we've got a lot of stuff going on. But at this particular point we're not in the business of designating envoys.'' Israel wants to isolate Hamas economically, diplomatically and militarily in the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist group seized control last week.

At the same time, Israel and the United States want to bolster the emergency government set up by Abbas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank after he dismissed a unity cabinet led by Hamas.

Members of the Quartet -- the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations -- have been drafting proposals to bolster peace talks.

The UN has been considering for months the appointment of a special envoy who would represent the broader Quartet in any future push for peace talks.

The Quartet's last envoy, James Wolfensohn, stepped down more than a year ago and had focused largely on economic issues before Hamas came to power.

The Arab proposal, revived at a summit in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, offers Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, creation of a Palestinian state and a ''just solution'' for Palestinian refugees.

Asked during a recent visit to the region if she might appoint a special Middle East envoy, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: ''Let's see how it evolves. I'm quite flexible on what geometry we use.'' REUTERS RKM BST0102

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