Blair in the middle

June 28, 2007

The last Middle East envoy resigned the post after about a year. Once the Islamic militant group Hamas swept the Palestinian elections in January 2006 and mediator James Wolfensohn's United States-led sponsors blocked all aid to the Palestinian Authority, the former World Bank president saw little hope of reviving Palestinian society as it became more impoverished, and he saw no chance to forge a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

The political map in the Palestinian areas has radically changed, but new Middle East envoy Tony Blair has inherited a thornier problem: unifying Palestinians who are split ideologically, politically and geographically.

The newly retired British prime minister will need more than charm and a good ear to change the map of the Middle East. And his unfailing support of the U.S. war in Iraq and friendship with the war's chief cheerleader, President Bush, has tarnished his reputation in that part of the world.

But Mr. Blair is smart and talented. He has argued forcefully in the past for a two-state solution; he knows the territory, and he has tackled nearly as great a challenge in forging the Northern Ireland peace agreement. In the Middle East, he has to prove that he can be an honest broker, and he must be prepared to use his influence with his American friend and backer to design a just deal.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The Palestinian political scene is severely fractured. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and what remains of his Fatah leadership have declared themselves the legitimate Palestinian government and are encamped in the West Bank. And Hamas officials, whose military wing routed Fatah security forces from the Gaza Strip two weeks ago, control Gaza and maintain their right to govern.

Mr. Blair is in a precarious position. His sponsors - the Quartet of Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union - back Mr. Abbas and are prepared to resume millions in aid to his government in transition. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in an effort to bolster Mr. Abbas, has pledged to release tax revenues to the Abbas government and release 250 Palestinians prisoners in a goodwill gesture.

What about the 1.5 million Palestinians who remain in the Gaza Strip with Hamas at the helm? That rift has to be mended if all Palestinians hope to live in an independent state that links the West Bank with Gaza. But Hamas, which is well-organized and armed, refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, two imperatives of the Quartet.

Mr. Blair may have wanted this job to finish out his career and rehabilitate his legacy from the debacle in Iraq, but the intractable nature of the conflict and the entrenched political dynamics could well finish him instead.

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