Published on
the Independent/UK

Blair's Middle East Role Tainted by Associations with Bush, Say Critics

Colin Brown / Donald Macintyre

JERUSALEM - As Gordon Brown, at last, inherited 10 Downing Street, Tony Blair yesterday took the first step towards life as an ex-prime minister and an international diplomat.

Mr Blair overcame Russia's reservations to be made Middle East envoy working on behalf of the US, Russia, the UN and the EU. His official remit will be to promote Palestinian economic development as well as advise on building the institutions of a future Palestinian state. 0628 02

He told his constituency in Sedgefield, Co Durham, last night that he was quitting as an MP, causing a by-election, tipped to be on 19 July, to take up the new role.

However, reservations continued about his ability to act as an honest broker in the Middle East because of his unequivocal support for George Bush in the war in Iraq, and failing to call for a halt to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer.

President Vladimir Putin had "positive" talks with Mr Blair before the ex-prime minister was confirmed in the post at a meeting of the Quartet powers in Israel.

Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, who privately spoke to Mr Blair hours before the handover of power at Downing Street, also has his private reservations about the former premier's new role.

Mr Brown is said to be concerned that Mr Blair should not interfere with an economic strategy for Palestine, which he is keen to pursue in the coming months.

"There is nothing we can do about it," said one minister close to Mr Brown. "It was pushed by Bush and we have to accept it."

During his final Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Mr Blair said: "The absolute priority is to try to give effect to what is now the consensus across the international community - that the only way of bringing stability and peace to the Middle East is a two-state solution."

Senior United Nations officials describe Mr Blair as a star player who will bring energy to the Middle East peace process.

Left-wing anti-war Labour MPs were openly sceptical of his role. Alan Simpson, a member of the Labour Campaign Group, said: "I can't see how Blair, who took us to war against Iraq, can do anything to bring peace for Palestine."

The appointment was officially announced by the Quartet - the US, EU, UN, and Russia - after a day of diplomacy. It was officially welcomed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister. But it was greeted with scepticism by Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman for Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who has refused to accept his dismissal by Mr Abbas as Prime Minister. "Our experience with Tony Blair as Britain's Prime Minister has not been encouraging," said Mr Hamad. "He has always adopted the American and Israeli positions."

The official announcement says that Mr Blair will spend "significant time" in the region and have a small staff based in Jerusalem seconded from Quartet members to fulfil a remit which, as expected, stops well short of making him an international mediator between Israel and the Palestinians on final settlement of the conflict.

Like his predecessor, James Wolfensohn, Mr Blair will be charged with promoting economic development - a task that cannot easily be divorced from the impact of the wider conflict on the lives of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. Mr Wolfensohn, however, became increasingly frustrated with his lack of progress in easing closures, particularly in Gaza, to inject new life in the Palestinian economy.

Israeli officials have gone out of their way to praise Mr Blair since his appointment was first mooted, and Mr Olmert told Mr Blair in a phone call to mark his departure from office before the appointment was confirmed that Israel would "co-operate with him to the fullest".

© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

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