Blair's first trip as Mideast envoy met with support, skepticism

The former British prime minister wraps up his visit Tuesday after visits with Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian officials.

Amid a mix of cautious support and skepticism, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday wraps up his first Middle East visit as the Quartet's newly appointed envoy. The four-member group composed of the US, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia has tasked him with laying the ground work for an independent Palestinian state by implementing strategic humanitarian aid programs that will strengthen the economy and create a stable government in the West Bank.

Mr. Blair meets Tuesday with Palestinian leaders, some of whom doubt he can accomplish much as an envoy, and say that what really counts is American support. On Monday, he met briefly with Jordanian officials and also spoke with Israeli leaders, who publicly welcomed him despite concerns voiced in private.

Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni lauded Blair's mission after meeting with him for an hour in Jerusalem. "This is a critical moment that can create a breakthrough," she told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Livni told Blair that Israel wished to help him on his mission, as "strengthening the Palestinian institutions is an Israeli interest; your success is our success."
"The path to a Palestinian state goes through their own war on terror, as well as the construction of stable infrastructures for a responsible state that is run by a government that accepts the international community's conditions and can control its own territory and prevent it from becoming a source of danger for Israel," Livni said.

Blair also met one-on-one with Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib in Amman on Monday. Officials there reiterated their willingness to help the Quartet create a lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, reports the Jordan Times. Mr. Khatib described the former British prime minister's visit as "vital for the Palestinians, Israel and the entire region."

"Mr Blair very much appreciated Jordan's pledge to work closely with him" in his efforts to reactivate the moribund Middle East peace process, said Blair spokesman Matthew Doyle after the one-hour meeting, without elaborating.

Following a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Blair appeared guardedly optimistic, saying there is a "sense of possibility." However, he added that it's still too early to see whether these possibilities will come to fruition, reports the Daily Telegraph. Mr. Peres has pledged to offer his support to the Quartet mission.

"I feel this is a serious window of opportunity for peace, but the duration is not too long," [President Peres] told reporters in Jerusalem. "I don't underestimate the difficulties, there are many," he said, but added that there was "a real chance" for Mr Blair's success.

Many Israelis support Blair, but a number of unnamed officials interviewed by Israeli newspapers have expressed suspicion of Blair's intent. They suggested that he might be "tempted to overstep" the limited scope of his mandate as envoy and press Israel on border issues, the Palestinian refugee question, and disputed claims of Jerusalem, reports the Los Angeles Times.

"We hope he goes in the direction taken by former President Bill Clinton, who became the world's biggest fundraiser for worthy causes," the Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted an unnamed Cabinet member as saying on the eve of Blair's visit.
Israeli officials publicly embraced Blair's limited assignment, saying he must succeed before the two sides can make peace.

Palestinians, too, have their concerns about whether Blair will prove effectual, reports The New York Times. Many wonder if, as an envoy, he will have the power to seriously affect the peace process.

"What I do with the Israelis, what the Israelis do with me, is the main ingredient," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told The Associated Press. "The decisions required for peace are not going to come from the envoys."
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst, said in a telephone interview that, "Appointing an envoy means nothing." What counts, he said, is the American administration's willingness to get seriously involved in peace efforts. Mr. Khatib said he saw "no sign" of that happening right now.

Indeed, Blair will face serious challenges carrying out his mission to rebuild Palestinian infrastructure. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) reports that his efforts may be complicated by high unemployment rates, substandard living conditions, and corruption. Additionally, the split between Fatah and Hamas poses a major hurdle. It will be made even more difficult because the Quartet has directed Blair not to engage Hamas officials in any serious talks, something Hamas has called a "mistake."

"He must be fair," said Ismail Haniya [the former Palestinian prime minister and a prominent member of Hamas].
"He should correct the mistakes he made as Britain's prime minister. We are ready for dialogue with Blair, and even the Quartet. All we want is justice for the Palestinian people."

Hamas officials say they are willing to speak with Blair, but not with Israel, reports the Arab News. The spokesman for the Hamas-led government in Gaza warns that Blair's efforts will fail if he and the Quartet continue to exclude Hamas.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a press statement that Blair's mission "will fail and end without any achievements if not based on transparency and respect of all Palestinian political parties". Hamas warned Blair not to ignore the group, and maintained that marginalizing Hamas would erode his credibility in his new position.

For his part, Blair – who plans to spend an average of one week per month in the region – says that at this point in his new role he has just come "to listen, learn and reflect," reports the Associated Press. He added that he already feels a "sense of willingness" from both sides.

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