Source AP ©

Blair gets down to business as Mideast envoy

Pleasant surprise for Tony Blair, who becomes Mideast envoy this week: the Palestinian uprising has fizzled and Israel says it's ready to work with a moderate Palestinian leadership after seven years of stalemate.

Blair arrives Monday for talks with both sides, but he has only a limited mandate, and despite his star appeal, he could quickly become one in a long succession of well-meaning, yet ultimately ineffective mediators.

A word of caution came from James Wolfensohn, Blair's predecessor as envoy of the diplomatic Quartet, made up of the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia.

In 2005, Wolfensohn, a former World Bank president, was asked to oversee the rebuilding of Gaza after Israel's pullout from the area. Wolfensohn accomplished less than he had hoped and saw the last of his achievements - creating a gateway to the world for fenced-in Gazans - unravel after the Islamic militant Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza last month.

Wolfensohn told the Israeli daily Haaretz that while he made some mistakes, his main problem had been lack of authority.

The U.S. dominates the Quartet, he noted. "There was never a desire on the part of the Americans to give up control of the (peace) negotiations, and I would doubt that in the eyes of (deputy national security adviser) Elliott Abrams and the State Department team I was ever anything but a nuisance," Haaretz quoted him as saying last week.

Blair has also been given a relatively limited assignment: to prepare the ground for a Palestinian state by encouraging reform, economic development and institution-building. There is no mention of trying to help broker a final peace deal.

On the eve of the visit, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad met in Jerusalem with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Palestinian officials said they discussed Blair's mission and other initiatives.

Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the Bush administrations would hamstring the new envoy.

"Blair is entering the post with the exact same constraints that Wolfensohn did, which is a United States that says, 'You will not engage in any issues related to final status. You are only going to deal with Palestinian institution building,"' Kurtzer told The Associated Press. "If he doesn't expand his mandate, I would not be optimistic."

Even in his limited role, Blair will have to confine his work to the West Bank, since the international community continues to shun Hamas, now in control of Gaza.

Yossi Beilin, a dovish Israeli politician with vast experience in negotiations, said there is a pressing need for a third party go-between to calm tensions between Israel, the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria. "Someone on the level of Tony Blair could to it," Beilin told the AP, but his narrow mandate makes it impossible.

However, chances of transforming the West Bank are perhaps better than any time since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, following failed peace talks.

The violence, which left nearly 4,400 Palestinians and more than 1,100 Israelis dead, blocked any progress in peacemaking, but the uprising has run out of steam. Hamas, responsible for scores of deadly attacks, is largely contained behind Gaza's border fences and on the defensive in the West Bank, while scores of gunmen from Abbas' Fatah movement have surrendered their weapons in exchange for an Israeli amnesty.

The new West Bank government will likely be receptive to Blair's reform proposals. The caretaker Cabinet, installed after the fall of Gaza to Hamas, is headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an economist who helped clean up public finances during the era of Abbas' predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat.

On a personal level, Blair can contribute political experience, negotiating skills, knowledge of the conflict - and enthusiasm. "I'm nothing if not an optimist," he told a Quartet meeting last week.

But it may not be enough.

Palestinian reforms and economic development are closely linked to progress toward a final peace deal, and there's no sign of that.

The Palestinians are eager to resume negotiations, but Israel says it's too soon. Israel is willing to talk about general outlines of an agreement, but argues that negotiations can only begin once Abbas has disarmed militants and restored order in areas under his control.

Blair will quickly come up against the limitations of his mandate, said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.

"He may be able to get something done in terms of institution building and confidence building," Alpher said. "I don't think he has any chance for anything you could call a spectacular success by any means. My guess is he'll throw in the towel in frustration in about a year."

Blair, who meets separately with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday, starts his mission at a time of opportunity, Alpher said, but Blair's previous alliance with U.S. President George W. Bush and his support for the Iraq war may hurt his credibility in the Arab world.

Palestinian economist Samir Hleileh said he doesn't expect any breakthrough under Bush, and for any chance of success Blair must stick to his mission well beyond the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

For now, Blair has to keep his expectations low, said Hleileh, former secretary general of the Palestinian Cabinet. "He has to realize he can start with economic development and institution building, but then he has to face the fact that both are not workable without a political framework," he said.

Wolfensohn said his successor might fare better than he did. Asked by Haaretz about Blair's chances, Wolfensohn said: "Better than mine were. He is closer to George Bush. He was prime minister. I do not believe there's much time. I think it is difficult. But we're fortunate to have somebody with experience."

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