Blair’s Mideast Mission Impossible

Like so much else in the Middle East, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first trip as a peace envoy to Israel and the Palestinian territories involves a squabble over real estate — or, in this case, office space.

Mr. Blair arrived Monday on 48-hour tour aimed, in part, at finding digs in Jerusalem suitable to his stature as the representative of the Quartet of world powers — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — ostensibly mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Blair had expressed an interest in setting up shop at Government House, the former seat of Palestine’s British colonial rulers. Though the compound has a magnificent view of the Old City, it’s also filled to burst with various UN bureaucrats, a species not known to easily relinquish its perks. So Blair may eventually check into the less august (but still glamorous) American Colony Hotel, which housed his predecessor as Quartet envoy, James Wolfensohn.

Either location, however, carries reminders that Blair’s chances of making a meaningful contribution towards Middle East peace are slim. The British Mandate ended in 1948 without finding a solution to rival Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations, while Wolfensohn left his post in frustration in 2006 after a year on the job.

Whether Mr. Blair’s tenure will be anything more than a minor footnote in the long-running conflict will depend on whether he uses his global stature to chart a course quite different from the one intended by his close ally, President George W. Bush, who appointed him to the new job.

So far, the signs aren’t promising. Rather than trying to push the rival parties back into real peace negotiations, Blair’s mandate from the White House is to help strengthen the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. To which a cynic might respond: What Palestinian Authority?

The PA, which was created in 1994 as an interim body for Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories as a prelude to statehood, is now in shambles. After years of single-party rule by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, the PA became a paragon of corruption and mismanagement. As a result, the Islamist militants of Hamas won control of the PA’s legislature and government in democratic elections of January 2006, prompting a Western boycott of much of the Authority. And after the short sharp civil war in Gaza in June, Palestinians now have in effect two rival governments — one run by Hamas in Gaza, who remain in control of the Palestinian legislature, but whose government has been dismissed by President Mahmoud Abbas; the other run by Fatah in the West Bank that, although appointed as an emergency administration by President Abbas, needs the endorsement of the legislature to become a permanent government.

In the midst of such disarray, Blair has little chance of preparing Palestinians for peace and self-rule. The leadership of Fatah, reviled by most Palestinians for being pawns of the U.S. and Israel, has little ability to deliver the stability and security that Israel needs. But Iranian-backed Hamas, which has the support of a majority of Palestinians, refuses to recognize Israel, and is rapidly developing its military capability in Gaza, raising the likelihood of Israeli intervention.

Any hope of Blair bridging the intra-Palestinian rift that runs through the heart of the PA is made that much more difficult by the Quartet’s refusal to deal with Hamas. In a speech last week, President Bush announced a plan to continue Hamas’s international isolation, while lavishing money and weapons on Fatah — a scheme that few observers in the region believe is likely to bring peace any closer.

There has lately been speculation here that Blair might break with the White House and start talking to Hamas on his own. But if the former British Prime Minister’s lockstep support of Bush policy in Iraq is any guide — a loyalty that led to Blair’s political downfall in Britain — Blair’s moderating influence over the Americans is close to nil. “It’s all just more of the same,” said a British diplomat, muttering bitterly into his cups at a Jerusalem cocktail party last week. Welcome to the Middle East.

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