Thursday, June 28, 2007

Blair’s new job: Success or failure?


Aljazeera.com

June 28, 2007

Blair’s appointment as the quartet’s Middle East envoy “shows how the people behind this live in a rarefied atmosphere and have no concept of what is happening on the ground…”

By Emma Sabry

Tony Blair is facing a tough job in his new role as the quartet’s Middle East envoy. His task is exceptionally challenging because of the current Palestinian turmoil following Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza Strip.

The appointment, suggested by the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, drew mixed reactions worldwide. The former British premier is seen as a “friend” in Israel, whose Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he believes that “Blair can have a favourable impact.”

Perhaps Blair’s close relations with Israel could be traced back to his alliance with the United States; the main backer of Israel, something that could be seen as a major drawback in the Arab world, which has little faith that a close friend to President George W. Bush could bring peace after years of failed U.S. diplomacy.

Blair is also reviled in the Arab world because of his decision to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and his support to Israel in its war against the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah last summer. However, some analysts say Bair sees this task as his last chance to counter the criticism he has suffered over the Iraq War.

Despite these drawbacks, Blair is a European statesman with very good negotiating skills; consider his success in Northern Ireland. He is also more outspoken that Washington in stressing the need for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this could be seen as an advantage for him as a special Middle East envoy who will report to the so-called quartet - the U.S., the UN, the EU and Russia, according to an article on AFP.

“Tony Blair is distinguished from the United States in that respect,” said Reginald Dale, a scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He is not going to be representing the United States but also the United Nations and the European Union particularly, which is much more likely to counterbalance the United States by being more sympathetic to the Palestinians,” said Dale, a senior fellow of the center’s European program.

The quartet announcement about Blair’s appointment Wednesday said he would support their efforts to promote an end to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, “in conformity with the road map,” whose key objective is a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis. According to the BBC, Blair’s mandate is to focus on helping the Palestinians, but it includes the right to “liaise with other countries… in support of the agreed Quartet objectives”. These include a final settlement.

During his last appearance in Parliament, Blair spoke about his high hopes.

“The only way of bringing stability and peace to the Middle East is the two-state solution, which means a state of Israel that is secure and confident of its security, and a Palestinian state that is not merely viable in terms of its territory, but in terms of its institutions and governance,” he said.

Despite Blair’s enthusiasm, it’s not hard to find critics about his new post. Reports said the EU and Russia were not too keen about this appointment but decided not to block it. Brussels sources say Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief who has a long track-record in the region, is also unhappy.
Apparently, they are not alone.

“I am flabbergasted,” said Rosemary Hollis of the think-tank Chatham House in London, who is writing a book about Blair and the Middle East.

“It beggars belief on so many levels. It shows how the people behind this live in a rarefied atmosphere and have no concept of what is happening on the ground… It is not just the question of Iraq. There is a whole combination of factors. He had little enough influence as prime minister. How can he have more now?

“There might be an element of giving him the job simply because he wants it so badly but beyond that, the game plan, if there is one, might be to try to out-manoeuvre Hamas and build up President Abbas,” Hollis added.

It isn’t clear whether Blair, who will make his first working visit to Ramallah in the West Bank next month, will engage with Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip. Blair’s main point of contact with the Palestinians will be President Mahmoud Abbas and the new government formed without Hamas, which has been boycotted diplomatically and slapped by economic sanctions after it won the legislative elections last year, mainly because it refused to meet the quartet’s demands: recognize Israel, give up anti-Israeli attacks and accept past peace deals.

“The experience of our people with Blair was bad,” a Hamas spokesman said.

On the other hand, Abbas’ Fatah party welcomed Blair’s appointment.
“President Abbas welcomes the nomination of Blair as envoy of the Quartet…(and) has given the assurance that he will work with (him) to arrive at a peaceful solution on the basis of two states,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

But normal Palestinians do not think that Blair would really make a difference. “Is he going to be listened to? Are his comments going to be respected? Can he really intervene?” asked Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian MP and former peace negotiator.

Stressing that the Palestinians don’t need help building up their institutions, she said: “We need third party involvement to achieve peace, to curb Israeli measures, to end the occupation and to build a state.”

What’s clear now is that Blair will not want to suffer the fate of the previous Quartet envoy, the former head of the World Bank James Wolfensohn, who left in frustration in 2006 after only a year.

In fact, the history of Middle East envoys and mediators is a troubling one, although there have been some achievements. Top negotiator Henry Kissinger invented the concept of “shuttle diplomacy”, which eased tensions in the region after the 1973 war. President Jimmy Carter helped efforts to forge the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978. Other negotiators have not been so fortunate. President Clinton thought he came close when brought Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to Camp David in 2000, but his efforts fizzled out.

More recently, the Peruvian diplomat Alvaro de Soto ended his time as the UN’s Middle East envoy (a post that, like that of the EU Middle East envoy, few people know exists) with a bitter report dismissing the Quartet as irrelevant and slamming the United States for bowing to Israeli pressure.

Now Bush, with 18 months to go before leaving the White House, is depending on Blair to realize a two-state solution, five years to the month after the U.S. President proposed an independent Palestinian state.

“Over the last six years, the United States has continued to champion the two-state solution in theory but to undermine it in practice,” said Nathan Brown of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In sum, official U.S. statements reflect a deep disconnect from and a denial of the realities on the ground,” he said.

Although the State Department said that despite Blair’s appointment, Rice would continue to push ahead with Middle East peace talks, many analysts blamed the Bush administration’s abdication of leadership for the current mess in the region.

Citing the “endemic” violence and the “hardened” attitudes of the Israelis and Palestinians, among other factors, The New York Times said: “If Blair is prepared to speak these home truths to his good friend George Bush and insist on more consistent and even-handed American engagement, he could restore some of his luster and increase the chances for peace.”
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