Blairs experience could prove to be baggage

Tony Blair brings a lot to his new job as a peace envoy: his hands-on experience as British prime minister in dealing with Middle East issues, the confidence President Bush places in him as a loyal supporter of the Iraq war and a long-held view that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vital to stabilizing the region.

The question in this case is whether “a lot” constitutes useful experience or debilitating baggage.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are welcoming, if a little wary of Blair, who will be the envoy of the quartet, the diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

“Blair comes with baggage on the Arab side of having done Iraq,” said Stephen Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, referring to Blair’s lockstep involvement with Bush in pursuing the war, now seen as a destabilizing debacle.

“He needs Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — and Syria for that matter — if he’s going to succeed,” Cohen said. All those countries, he added, are profoundly unhappy with the course of the Iraq war.

“On the Israeli side, he comes with the baggage of someone who has supported the idea of linkage” of the Israeli-Palestinian problem to reforming the Middle East, Cohen continued. “And Israel is afraid of linkage.”

Blair has consistently linked Israeli-Palestinian peace to broader Middle East stability, something that officials in Jerusalem resent because of the burden it places on them.

Blair’s sponsorship of a 2003 conference in London on advancing Palestinian statehood was a nadir in the relationship. The British leader did not give advance notice of the conference, which included a number of Arab states, and Israel refused to allow the Palestinian delegation to attend.

That’s water under the bridge, according to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who endorsed the new appointment when he met with President Bush last week.

Miri Eisin, Olmert’s spokeswoman, has said Israel is “very supportive of Prime Minister Blair and his continuing involvement in the Middle East and the peace process.”

Blair and Olmert spoke Tuesday, June 26.

Still, some of Olmert’s advisers are believed to see a Blair appointment as dangerous. The worry is that Blair could nudge Bush into pressuring Israel into making security concessions to allow greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority leadership also welcomed Blair’s appointment, partly for the same reasons as Olmert. Both Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are weak because of military debacles — Olmert because of Israel’s failure to crush Hezbollah in last summer’s Lebanon war, Abbas because of the Hamas victory against forces loyal to Abbas’ Fatah Party earlier this month in the Gaza Strip.

Both are looking for a dramatic way out of the political wilderness.

Blair’s mandate will be to build institutions and economic capacity among the Palestinians. American officials say he will have a mission of bringing a “civil society” to a polity descending into internecine warfare and will not deal with final-status issues.

That was also the mission of his predecessor, James Wolfensohn, who quit the World Bank to take the job in 2005. He departed in despair a little more than a year later.

Although nominally answerable to the entire Quartet, Wolfensohn took his orders from Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state. That left him subject to the machinations of Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser who is the Bush administration’s last word on Israel issues, and who has resisted any concessions to the Palestinians.

Wolfensohn found little backing from Bush for pressing Israel to open up transit points into the Gaza Strip. Blair might be able to bypass the Bush administration hierarchy, however, and take his case directly to the president.

“The question is, has Blair reached a meeting of the minds with the U.S. on the scope of his authority?” said David Makovksy, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Cohen, the IPF analyst, said Blair’s performance is ultimately less important “The problem is not the baggage, but if they’re willing to travel,” Cohen said. “If they were willing to travel, he could carry the baggage.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.