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Bush Eyes Blair for Mideast Peace Role

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TERENCE HUNT | June 20, 2007 11:29 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — President Bush has talked with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about taking a role as a Middle East peace envoy after he leaves office next week. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, the State Department's top diplomat for the Middle East, talked with Blair in London on Wednesday, while the White House and State Department spoke glowingly about the prime minister's credentials but said there was nothing to announce yet.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also expressed support for Blair playing a role in the Middle East.

"Officials in the prime minister's office are aware of this idea and Prime Minister Olmert is very supportive of Prime Minister Blair and of his continuing involvement in the Middle East and the peace process," Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

Blair steps down next Wednesday.

"Obviously Prime Minister Blair has been very active and deeply involved in Middle East peace issues throughout his prime ministership," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

She said Blair and Bush speak often. "It would not surprise me if they have talked about what Prime Minister Blair would like to do following the end of his term ... but we don't have anything to announce today," Perino said.

James Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank, stepped down in April as international Mideast envoy for the Quartet of peacemakers _ the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. The position envisioned for Blair was said to be an enhanced version of that role.

Members of the Quartet may meet in Paris next week, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has a scheduling conflict and the meeting could be postponed.

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack would not say whether the United States wants Blair to take the job, but indicated there is a need for a new Mideast envoy.

That person would work to help the Palestinians strengthen their political and economic systems and institutions in preparation for an eventual independent Palestinian state, McCormack said.

"So there is this idea out there of, 'can we identify a person that could fulfill those functions?'" McCormack said. "I think that the idea has some merit. ... But as for particular individuals, at this point I'm certainly not going to get into it."

Separately, a senior State Department official said that although U.S. officials have explored the job possibility with Blair, those discussions are not yet at the point of a job offer. That could come after further discussions among the four Quartet members, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

Blair's office refused comment.

During his tenure, Wolfensohn helped negotiate several agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. They included transferring control of the Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza to the Palestinians, a deal to improve the flow of goods in and out of Gaza and the purchase of dozens of greenhouses from Israeli settlers for Palestinian use.

These efforts, however, hit repeated obstacles, and in some cases the agreements were not honored.

The Quartet has called on Hamas, the Islamic militant movement, to renounce violence, recognize Israel and honor past peace agreements. Hamas has rejected these demands.

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AP reporters Anne Gearan and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.