LISBON -- Tony Blair waded headlong into the murky world of Middle East peacemaking yesterday, dismissing concerns that he would fail like so many before him and announcing that he would travel to the region.
The former British prime minister brushed aside suggestions that his limited mandate as special envoy to the international diplomatic Quartet -- and the group's refusal to deal with the hard-line Palestinian movement, Hamas -- might hamstring his mission.
"I'm nothing if not an optimist," Blair said after a meeting of senior representatives from the Quartet's members -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. "I will probably have need for all that quality of optimism in this task ahead, but I am determined to try."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said "a good deal of good luck and optimism" would be required to achieve peace. Talks have sputtered since the second Palestinian uprising in 2001.
Blair gave no specifics on when he would make his first visit to the region, though it is expected in the coming days, and he plans to return later for a longer trip. He said he intends to brief the Quartet for the first time in September. President Shimon Peres of Israel has said he will meet with Blair in Israel on Tuesday; there has been no confirmation from Blair.
In a statement after the Quartet's meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as all states in the region, to work closely with Blair. He said the diplomatic group "encouraged robust international support for his efforts."
Blair pointed to his successful efforts in pushing for peace in Northern Ireland, a goal that also once had appeared impossible.
"Things can change," he said. At the same time, he cautioned against raising false hopes.
"There is a sense that we can regain momentum. That's the crucial thing. And if we are able to regain that momentum, then a whole lot of things become possible, not least the fact that those people of peace can then feel that the force is with them and not with those who want conflict."
Despite his enthusiasm, many believe Blair's role is too limited because it involves only developing Palestinian institutions and their economy. He is also authorized to deal only with moderate forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is in charge only in the West Bank following seizure of the Gaza Strip last month by Hamas.
Ahead of the meeting, Rice and Foreign Minister Luis Amado of Portugal, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, rejected any dealings with Hamas.
Colin Powell, Rice's predecessor and no stranger to Middle East peace efforts, said Wednesday that he saw no solution to the conflict other than engaging with Hamas. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
"I think you'd have to find some way to talk to Hamas," Powell said in an interview with National Public Radio. "As unpleasant a group they may be, and as distasteful as I find some of their positions, I think that through the Middle East Quartet . . . or through some means, Hamas has to be engaged."