Blair: New Mideast peace strategy almost ready

Former British prime minister and international Middle East envoy Tony Blair, third from left, visits the West Bank village of Aloja on Wednesday.Nasser Ishtayeh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Obama administration and international negotiators are drafting a new strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and expect to unveil it within six weeks, international Mideast envoy Tony Blair said.

The plan — being devised by the U.S. administration but with input from others — should offer renewed hope, the former British prime minister told Palestinian reporters.

"We're about to get a new framework," Blair said late Tuesday. "I can only speculate right now about what that framework is going to be. The reason I say people should be more hopeful, is that this is a framework that is being worked on at the highest level in the American administration, (and) in the rest of the international community."

The Obama administration has promised to work for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It has portrayed a two-state solution as the only way to solve the Mideast conflict and defined it as a U.S. national interest.

President Barack Obama is holding separate meetings at the White House this month with the Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders to hear their views.

'Clear picture'
Once those meetings are over, the Quartet is to convene in Washington to discuss and present the new strategy, Blair said. The Quartet includes the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. "I think that within the next five to six weeks, you will have a very clear picture of what the plan is," Blair said.

He gave no details on what changes might be in store.

The last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which had aimed for an agreement on Palestinian independence in 2008, ended without tangible results last year.

Israel's new hardline leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has yet to commit to a two-state solution, and supports the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in areas the Palestinians seek for their state.

The Palestinians are plagued by crippling internal division, with Gaza run by Hamas militants and the West Bank by U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Repeated efforts to forge a Palestinian unity deal, seen as a prerequisite for meaningful peace talks, have failed.

In Gaza, the Hamas government appointed a hardline lawmaker as its new interior minister. The appointment of Fathi Hamad puts him in charge of Hamas' security forces. Hamad, in his mid-40s, is the founder of Hamas' TV, radio and satellite channels, which are known for their inflammatory broadcasts against Israel and Abbas.

He succeeds Said Siyam, a hardliner who was killed in Israel's military offensive in Gaza last January. "We will continue his path of development and construction," Hamad said late Tuesday.

The international community has refused to deal with the Islamic militant group, saying it must first renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

That policy, however, has failed to persuade the group to soften its anti-Israel stance or push the Palestinian rivals to reconcile.

Also Wednesday, Israeli planes bombed smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, the Israeli military and Palestinian security services said. Four people were wounded. The military said the planes hit three tunnels. Israel frequently hits the tunnels to try to stop Hamas arms smuggling.

Gaza militants fired six mortar shells at Israel on Wednesday, the military said. No one was hurt.

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