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Blair Arrives in Mideast in New Role: Peace Envoy

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Blair is on his first visit to the the Middle East as the international community's new envoy to the region. A handout image shows him greeting Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday began his first visit to the Middle East as the international community's new envoy to the region, hoping to add renewed momentum to fledgling peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.

The newly appointed envoy for the so-called quartet of Mideast mediators — United States, European Union, U.N. and Russia — arrived in Israel for his first visit in the new post. During the two-day visit, Blair planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other top officials.

Blair arrives at a promising time considering the Palestinian uprising has fizzled, Israel says it's ready to work with the new Palestinian leadership after seven years of stalemate, and the U.S. has called for an international peace conference on the Middle East in autumn.

But limits on Blair's responsibilities (he has no authority to negotiate a final peace deal) have already raised questions about his ability to forge a breakthrough.

Blair's first stop was a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who said the visit was of great significance and that Blair's mission to strengthen the Palestinian economy and government is an important step toward Palestinian statehood.

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"This is a critical point that can create a breakthrough," she said.

There were no immediate details on their talks. Blair was to meet Defense Minister Ehud Barak later Monday.

Blair is due to meet Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, on Tuesday.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have welcomed the involvement of Blair, who brings a high-profile and respect to Mideast diplomacy. He is known for his powers of persuasion and track record in forging Northern Ireland's peace accord.

But in his new job, Blair has been given a relatively limited assignment: to prepare the ground for a Palestinian state by encouraging reform, economic development and institution building.

There is no mention of trying to help broker a final peace deal, a role the United States appears reluctant to cede. Such constraints could quickly turn Blair into the latest of a long succession of well-meaning, yet ultimately ineffective mediators.

Ahead of the visit, Israeli and Palestinian officials acknowledged Blair's limitations and said a final peace deal could only come through direct talks.

"What I do with the Israelis, what the Israelis do with me, is the main ingredient," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "The decisions required for peace are not going to come from the envoys."

On Wednesday, Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab countries that have made peace with Israel, were due to formally present an Arab peace initiative that envisions full Arab recognition of Israel in return for lands the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press