Friday, June 29, 2007

U.S. says Blair's Mideast role will be limited

U.S. says Blair's Mideast role will be limited
By Helene Cooper
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: June 28, 2007

WASHINGTON: In his new role as envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair will be charged with shoring up Palestinian institutions, but not with trying to nail down a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, a job Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will handle herself, according to Bush administration officials.

Rice has said several times that she intends to spend her remaining months in office trying to push peace talks forward.

Some Middle East analysts said Wednesday that such a narrow mandate would hamper the chances of Blair, who resigned as British prime minister Wednesday, succeeding. Indeed, the lack of a link between final status talks and the building of Palestinian institutions is the crux of why previous attempts have been unsuccessful, those analysts say.

"Unless he has the authority to deal with the Israelis on the issue of movement and lifting of barriers, he's not going to get very far," said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who was a senior adviser for Arab-Israeli relations at the State Department under the last three U.S. presidents.

"If this is a variation of the Jim Wolfensohn portfolio, where you have a very smart guy who is thrown at the economics of the Palestinian issue, but without the authority to help change the situation on the ground, then this isn't going to work," Miller said.

He was referring to the last envoy to represent the so-called quartet, James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, who left the post last year, expressing frustration with the lack of progress. The quartet consists of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

In their official statements, Bush administration officials have said that Rice and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel believe strongly that the United States is the only country Israel trusts as a broker of a Middle East peace pact.

"Mr. Blair, who is stepping down from office this week, has long demonstrated his commitment on these issues," the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said in announcing the appointment.

But, he added, "Secretary Rice and President Bush are going to focus on the political negotiations, as they have, and Mr. Blair is going to focus his considerable talents and his efforts on building those Palestinian institutions."

Bush administration officials defined Blair's mandate as one in which he would mobilize international assistance to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, identify and secure financing for Palestinian institutions and governing tasks and work out plans to promote Palestinian economic development.

In the steps outlined by McCormack, Rice would be the one to try to work with Olmert and Abbas on a separate track that addresses the "final status" issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979: Jerusalem's future, a Palestinian state's borders and what to do about Palestinian refugees who fled, or were forced to leave, homes in Israel.

In the Arab world, many reacted to Blair's appointment with a mixture of bemusement and cynicism.

"Blair is hated so much here - he took the Bush line all the way, and he was not worthy of Britain's past diplomacy," said Fahd Kheitan, a columnist with the Jordanian daily Al Arab al Youm. "Most people will ultimately view him as a prisoner of America's will."

Many Arabs see Blair as the man who lent the greatest legitimacy to the Bush administration's push for war with Iraq in 2003, a conflict that is seen as the basis of the region's current instability.

Others say they will never forget his unwillingness to insist on an end to Israel's bombardment of Lebanon last summer as Israeli forces tried to crush Hezbollah, the Shiite militia, in southern Lebanon. And still others accuse him of having come out on the side of the Israelis despite calling for the peace talks to be restarted.

Writing in a syndicated column, Rami Khouri, editor at large at The Daily Star in Beirut, said, "Appointing Tony Blair as special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace is something like appointing the Emperor Nero to be the chief fireman of Rome."

A senior Bush administration official maintained that Blair had not pressed U.S. officials to allow him to take on the final status issues.

With Gaza now in the hands of Hamas and the West Bank in the hands of Fatah, Blair will also have to try to strengthen a prospective Palestinian state that, at this point, consists of two sets of peoples who are separated both physically and politically.

Reflecting those differences, Abbas, the Palestinian president, welcomed the Blair appointment while the Hamas leadership in Gaza rejected it, saying Blair had always sided with Israel and the United States over the Palestinians.

Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Amman.


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