Blair: Shalit release would help restart talks

NEW YORK (JTA) – Securing the release of Gilad Shalit would greatly facilitate the resumption of peace negotiations, Tony Blair said.

Freeing the captive Israeli soldier was on a list of measures Blair, the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, offered at a news conference held at the United Nations headquarters in New York Tuesday that he said would help jump-start the stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We need to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip," Blair said. "It would help if Corporal Shalit were released, it would make a difference, and we’d have to bring Gaza politically as well as economically into the process.”

Gaza is led by the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, which is holding the abducted soldier.

Blair addressed reporters together with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Gaza loomed large during the meeting held by the three just prior to the news conference.

Fayyad, who is affiliated with Hamas’ rival Fatah, said Gaza and the Fatah-led West Bank must be reunified.

“We need a government in Gaza that is mature, accepts political pluralism,” he said.

Fayyad insisted, however, that the resumption of talks with Israel was being hindered by Israel’s refusal to announce a blanket freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“A comprehensive freeze includes settlement growth,” he said. “Our position has been and continues to be full compliance with the ‘road map.’ ”

The meeting was held moments after a summit involving President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas concluded in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel just a few blocks away.

“Our meetings are so intrinsically linked, the success of the one is dependent on the other,” Stoltenberg said.

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