Tony Blair's Palestinian pickle

Critics who say he can't make a difference underestimate his determination.

As the British would say, using that slangy phrase that conveys puzzlement, incredulity, and grudging admiration, it "takes the cake."

Having lost support and the prime ministership for embarking on a difficult war in one Arab country, Iraq, Tony Blair is taking on a new, seemingly intractable problem in another Arab territory, the arid Palestinian lands of Gaza and the West Bank.

The question is whether the Palestinians themselves have just squandered another opportunity to position these territories as the cornerstone of an independent state living in amity with their protagonist neighbor Israel. A peaceful resolution of the hostility between Palestinians and Israelis might be the key to resolving many other problems in the Middle East.

But Israel cannot accept a neighboring state that is pledged to destroy it, and that is exactly what Hamas, the Islamist party with a military arm that seized control of Gaza last month, has vowed to do. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the planting of "the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." It would establish an Islamist state not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank, where the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, runs an administration that is acceptable to Israel, the United States, and the European Union (EU).

One further complication is that Hamas, whose military arm has a record of terrorism and is backed by Iran, won a legitimate victory in parliamentary elections last year, largely because it has a reputation for good works among the Palestinian people. By contrast, the Fatah party of President Abbas, carrying the mantle of deceased leader Yasser Arafat, has a reputation of corruption and incompetence.

Into this messy political situation now steps Mr. Blair as the emissary of the Quartet, the combination of the US, the EU, the United Nations, and Russia that seeks to impose order and stability upon it. He does not do so with universal optimism. Some say that his closeness to President Bush and his support of the war in Iraq is a liability that will hobble his effectiveness with militant Arabs. Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad has said that while he was Britain's prime minister, Blair "was not honest and was not helpful in solving the conflict in the Middle East."

However, the critics may be underestimating Blair's longstanding determination to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Despite his alliance with Bush in toppling Saddam Hussein and prosecuting the Iraq war, he continually nagged the American president for greater US involvement in the Middle East peace process. Blair has also been exercised by the human plight of the Palestinians. Nor should the doubters forget that his impassioned support of the Iraq war, despite the loss of political support in Britain, was motivated in large part by his disgust for the tyranny of Hussein and his heartfelt belief that all mankind yearns for, and deserves, liberty.

Another strike against Blair cited by the doubters is that his mandate is narrow: to bolster the infrastructure, economy, and performance of the Palestinian Authority, while others, such as the US, retain the overall mandate to bring peace and hopefully achieve the ultimate goal of separate Palestinian and Israeli states living in harmony together. Again, the critics may be underestimating Blair's passion and skill, and a stature that previous Quartet emissaries did not have. This is, after all, the man who presided over Britain's peace pact between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, a conflict with Irish Republican Army acts of terrorism as gruesome as those we have witnessed in the Middle East.

Western leaders have responded to the intra-Palestinian struggle for power by attempting to bolster the more moderate West Bank regime at the expense of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Israel has already opened the spigot to start the flow of some $600 million withheld from the Palestinian Authority when it included Hamas members. But it is a neat trick to throw Western and Israeli money at the "moderate" regime in the West Bank without the Islamist factions and their propaganda machine in the Middle East branding the moderates as "traitors" to the Palestinian cause. Of course, Hamas is not without its own sponsors, having traditionally received an estimated $20 million to $30 million a year from Iran.

Progress in a conflict that has lasted decades? Can Blair do it? He's going to give it the old college try.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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