LISBON, Portugal – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed Tony Blair as a historic and passionate leader on Thursday, saying his debut as Mideast 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 said aboard a plane en route to a high-level meeting of the Quartet for peace.
The meeting — which brings together the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — will be the first since the hardline Islamic group Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the more moderate Fatah last month.
The power grab split the Palestinian leadership and placed yet another obstacle in the way of a broad Mideast peace deal. But it also prompted Israel and the West to seek ways to shore up beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Rice said the timing of the talks — and of Blair's first appearance as Mideast envoy — was propitious.
"There is a very good sense that 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 will make it difficult for him to achieve a breakthrough. Rice, who as America's senior diplomat is charged with the role as chief peacemaker, defended the division of responsibilities.
Blair's role "is something that is completely complimentary and if we all work together, and there is plenty to do, perhaps we can finally deliver."
The one-day meeting in Lisbon is taking place at the tail end of a reasonably positive week for peace efforts.
On Monday, President Bush proposed that an international gathering be held later this year aimed at restarting peace talks.
Rice said the Quartet is expected to endorse that plan, adding she also would be trying to round up support for the conference among Arab states when she visits the Middle East with Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the end of the month.
Talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas this week brought promises of a release of 250 Palestinian prisoners and an agreement to free up much-needed funds to Palestinian coffers.
The talks in Portugal, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, bring together Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.