Blair in the background

Perhaps his limited role as Mideast envoy will allow Blair to act as a proxy for Bush in talks with Hamas.

That's odd. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week agreed to become the international envoy to the Middle East, but he has no mandate to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. For such an experienced leader to play a restricted role is curious ... or is it sensible?

Curious especially because one of Mr. Blair's greatest achievements in office was to bring clashing Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland to a peaceful coexistence. Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Northern Ireland's "troubles" had historic roots, involving religious and territorial differences and self-perpetuating, retaliatory violence.

If anyone on this planet knows about solving such seemingly intractable problems, it's Blair. He's walked the walk.

It's also hard to imagine that Britain's energetic prime minister of 10 years will be satisfied if his new job is narrowly defined as it was when held by former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, who quit in frustration last year.

Blair is passionate about reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and moving toward a two-state solution. Yet his assignment looks to be in the same mold as Mr. Wolfensohn's. When commenting on Blair's appointment as envoy of the so-called "Quartet" (the UN, US, Russia, and the EU), State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said peace negotiations would remain the domain of President Bush and Condoleezza Rice. Blair is to concentrate on building up Palestinian governance and economics, and rustling up international aid.

Wolfensohn's experience shows, however, that peace issues can't be separated from ones relating to a smoother-functioning and more prosperous Palestinian area. The envoy on the ground must have the ability to also negotiate issues on the ground, such as freedom of movement for Palestinian goods and people. And he must be able to hold out the hope to Palestinians that all of this bucking up is actually leading somewhere.

Yet there are also some sound reasons why Blair may be happy with a lower profile – for now.

His role in the Iraq war, and his unwillingness to insist on a quick end to Israeli bombing in Lebanon last summer, erode his credibility in the eyes of many Arabs. So, too, does Britain's history as a colonial power.

Conditions in the region have also worsened, making peace more problematic. Palestinians are now divided, as Islamist, militant Hamas reigns in Gaza and secularist Fatah in the West Bank.

In the long run, no peace will be possible with just a partial Palestinian state, and perhaps this is where Blair can be quietly helpful.

Like the US, Britain blocked international funds to the Hamas-led government, which the US and EU categorize as a terrorist group. Yet Blair differs philosophically with Bush on "talking with the enemy."

Hamas will not go away. It has a strong following and was legitimately elected. Its isolation by the international community has worked to harden its positions.

Bush has shown some flexibility in limited talks with enemies Syria and Iran. A change in the Middle East dialogue, though, would be a major shift for Bush. Perhaps by working behind the scenes, Blair can provide the cover the US president would need to get Hamas to accept Israel's existence and end its support of terrorism.

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