Mixed response to Tony Blair as special envoy for Middle East

Despite differences, everyone agrees the job he faces is a tough one.

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The tapping of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who stepped down from his post on Tuesday, as special envoy for the Middle East has generated mixed emotions from the Middle East and observers.

The Associated Press said that his role in helping to bring about peace in Northern Ireland will give him credibility in the new job. But the AP also says that his job will not be focused on prodding Israel and Palestinians to the negotiating table, at least not at first.

"Blair's new job will deal primarily with helping the Palestinian Authority build political institutions. It won't, at least at first, involve direct mediation or negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis, the senior U.S. official said.
But Blair is one of the rare world leaders who is considered a friend by both the Israeli and Palestinian governments."

The major outside players working on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the so-called Quartet of the United Nations, United States, Russia, and the European Union, are now behind the appointment. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the EU and Russia held up the appointment on Tuesday -- Russia because Blair is seen as too close to the US, and the Europeans over concern his role would marginalize EU foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana -- but the paper now says those concerns have been set aside.

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The Quartet has concluded the elaboration of a mandate for the new representative," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference Wednesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah, with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. "I understand that the decision is about to be announced," Lavrov said.
Blair said his priority in the role would be to effect the current international consensus that a two-state solution is vital to peace in the Middle East.

Mr. Blair will be replacing former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who stepped down from his role as Mideast envoy following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. Israel and the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently fired elected Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and replaced him with an ally, also backed Blair for the job, Al Jazeera reports.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, said on Tuesday that Blair was a "very well appreciated figure in Israel" while Ehud Olmert, her prime minister, called him "a true friend" of Israel and promised full co-operation if he took the job.
Salam Fayyad, the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, said: ''We hope this appointment will speed efforts to resume the political process to achieve the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital."

But not everyone is welcoming Blair, most significantly Hamas. The group's de facto rule of Gaza, which for the moment has split the Palestinian Authority into two different entities, is complicating any outlook for peace negotiations. Reuters reports that Hamas, who insists that Haniyeh is still the legitimate Palestinian premier, is furious over his appointment -- and that Russia has serious reservations about the US strategy.

Hamas official Ghazi Hamad was hostile: "We do not expect Blair's role to be fair in any issue relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or any other Arab-related cause."
Moscow has also expressed misgivings about the latest U.S. and Israeli strategy of isolating Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which the Islamist group seized by force two weeks ago after routing Abbas's secular Fatah forces…
(Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov criticized what he called a "divide and conquer" policy that has resulted in Hamas control of Gaza and Fatah dominance in the West Bank.

Rami Khouri, an influential columnist for Lebanon's English language The Daily Star, said he has grave reservations about Blair's fitness for the new job. His lack of popularity in the region is due to his support for the invasion of Iraq and because of perceived bias toward Israel.

My mixed feelings and those of many others in the Arab world are the result of years of watching both the Quartet and Blair speak lofty rhetoric, but fail to follow up with practical, evenhanded deeds. If there is an award for the combined negative credibility of an institution and an individual, the Quartet and Blair should be its first recipients.
(Blair's) main problem is not only that he has been hypocritical or partial to Israel and the United States rather than truly even-handed; it is also that his policies have contributed directly and abundantly to the Arab-Israeli conflict and associated tensions in the Middle East… Appointing Tony Blair as special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace is like appointing the Emperor Nero to be the chief fireman of Rome.

The New York Times in a Monday editorial said it would have preferred another choice, but added the job would be an opportunity for Blair to redeem himself for what the paper called past mistakes.

Our main reservation is (Blair's) dismal refusal to speak unwelcome truths to people in power -- including himself -- but especially to George Bush, who will have to be willing to take his own political risks and set aside his prejudices if there is to be any realistic short-term prospect for Mideast peace.
There were bolder possible choices -- think Bill Clinton or James Baker. But if Mr. Blair gets the job … he will get a chance to redeem a legacy badly tarnished by Iraq and to show that he means to be nobody's poodle.
His belief in the urgency of a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians is clear. He knows the region, and many of the leaders with whom he'll need to work. And he is supremely capable of articulating a vision of a better future if those leaders lift themselves above the tit-for-tat cycle of crises.

Whatever Mr. Blair's qualifications for the job, there is almost no one who thinks his job will be easy. Many are guessing that he will come to regard his role in bringing Protestants and Roman Catholics together in Northern Ireland as relatively easy by contrast, as a cartoon in Wednesday's International Herald Tribune points out.

A reminder of the difficulties came on Wednesday with an Israeli attack on Gaza killing 12 people, mostly militants but some civilians, including a 12-year-old boy, reports Reuters.

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