Tony Blair joins Mideast peace envoy

LISBON, Portugal &

The United States and European Union held firm today to their refusal to deal with the militant Palestinian Hamas movement as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair prepared to start his new job as Middle East peace envoy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, both rejected any dealings with Hamas, even as some questioned if the stance could compromise Blair's work with the Palestinians.

"Hamas, I think, knows what is expected for international respectability," Rice said at a news conference in Lisbon with Amado shortly before the international diplomatic Quartet was to hold its first high-level meeting with Blair here.

She said neither the Quartet &

the United States, the EU, the United Nations and Russia &

nor Washington would deal with Hamas unless it recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces terrorism, ruling out its participation in an upcoming Middle East peace meeting called by President Bush.

Speaking for the EU, Amado agreed.

"I see no conditions at the moment to engage (in) new relations with Hamas without a new position from them," he said.

In addition to Blair making his first appearance before the Quartet principals, today's meeting will also be the first at its most senior level since Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip, ousting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction-led government, which the Quartet and Israel recognize as legitimate.

The power grab split the Palestinian leadership and placed yet another obstacle in the way of a Mideast peace deal. But it also prompted Israel and the West to seek ways to shore up the beleaguered Abbas.

Rice said she sensed a "kind of momentum" building in Middle East peace efforts, including Blair's appointment as Quartet envoy and Bush's call for a meeting this fall between Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.

On her way to Lisbon, she hailed Blair as a historic and passionate leader, saying his debut as envoy could breath new life into long-stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

At the same time, she defended the decision to limit Blair's mandate to helping Palestinians develop their infrastructure and economy, saying his role would compliment U.S.-led diplomatic efforts &

and that there was plenty of work for everyone.

"This is a very skilled, respected, historic figure in many ways in the world, who is absolutely dedicated to democracy, to building a better Middle East," Rice told reporters aboard her plane.

"His dedication now to helping the Palestinians build the institutions of statehood, to move forward on economic development and to press forward on helping to create a strong Palestinian partner is very well timed as we try to move forward toward the establishment of a state," she said.

While Blair brings gravitas and enthusiasm to the role, critics say his limited mandate to help the Palestinians develop institutions and rule of law along with orders not the deal with Hamas will make it difficult for him to achieve a breakthrough.

Rice said the Quartet is expected to endorse Bush's plan for an international meeting, adding she would also try to round up support for it among Arab states when she visits the Middle East with Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the end of the month.

The talks in Portugal bring together Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Associated Press Writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.

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