Blair: Now, the Mideast

Yesterday, Northern Ireland. Tomorrow, Israel and the Palestinians.

The Blair-Clinton mediation duo, fresh from their Good Friday success on Northern Ireland, will now have a go at the even tougher religio-political collision in the Mideast.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair will play host in London. He has a fresh mandate: He's just finished talking to Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestine's Yasser Arafat. And he represents Europe: He holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

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Washington has lately suffered a loss of nerve over the land-for-peace deal that was going so well with Israel's past prime ministers Rabin and Peres, and is so nearly stalled with Netanyahu. But President Clinton will send Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to meet separately with Netanyahu and Arafat. And she holds out hope that her designated negotiators will yet persuade Mr. Netanyahu to relinquish more of the West Bank territory captured in 1967, thus persuading Mr. Arafat to return to face-to-face meetings with the Israeli leader.

There's irony in this subject. America's UN ambassador in 1967, the late Arthur Goldberg, would certainly be amazed to find that three decades later the US and Israel are arguing over whether Israel returns 11 or 13 percent of captured Arab land in a next step. Mr. Goldberg negotiated the terms of Resolution 242, the basic land-for-peace deal. He was proud of winning a subtle wording in that resolution that might permit a minor border change when the West Bank was returned to Arab control. The intention was to create a more defensible Israeli border, not annexation of large portions of Palestinian land.

If Mr. Blair leaves detailed talking to Ms. Albright, what role will he play except as host?

His task may be similar to that which he and Ireland's Prime Minister Ahern played at crucial stages of the Northern Ireland deal. Namely, offering suggestions, reassurance, and firm nudges when needed.

Mr. Clinton has reason to stay an ocean away. On Ireland, he had support from Congress and Irish-Americans. On pressing Israel, he faces active resistance from Congress and the Israel lobby. He also has a China trip upcoming, lots of political tasks in an election year, and, oh yes, Ken Starr's investigators circling.

Mr. Blair has no legal tie to the Mideast as he had to Northern Ireland. But London has past ties - Britain's Palestine Mandate and its 1917 Balfour Declaration that led to the birth of Israel exactly 50 years ago. And, as EU president, he speaks for a region with as large an interest as the US in Mideast oil and trade. Further, he ought to represent a deepfelt desire to help both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to live in assured peace. They, like the two sides in Belfast, need an outside nudge to get there.

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