Arab anger over Iraq, Lebanon wars could make Blair’s job difficult

One of the biggest challenges Tony Blair will face as a Middle East envoy of the international community is Arab anger over the wars in Iraq and Lebanon, and the suspicion that he is a lackey of US President George W. Bush.Throughout his 10 years as Britain’s prime minister, Blair was an activist and an interventionist, with largely positive results on Kosovo and Libya. Perhaps his most remarkable diplomatic achievement was bringing peace and democratic self-rule to Northern Ireland, a dispute that had confounded many other British leaders.

But leading the push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians would be a challenge of an entirely different magnitude, especially because his reputation is tainted in Arab eyes by his unflinching support for invading Iraq.

Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, released a statement saying peace in the region is one of his government’s top priorities — and affirmed its support for the Quartet and Blair. “As British prime minister, he demonstrated his commitment, over the years, to advancing the peace process, and he brings to the job unparalleled international and diplomatic experience,” Brown’s statement said. “He is exceptionally well placed to take on this role.” In his last appearance before parliament as prime minister Wednesday, Blair seemed determined to apply his renowned skills as a negotiator, even as he recognised the difficulties he would face as the new special envoy of the international Quartet for the Middle East. A viable two-state solution is “possible,” he told lawmakers, “but it will require a huge intensity of focus and work.” Some commentators say the enormity of the task is precisely the point: Serving as Middle East envoy for the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union gives Blair a chance at redemption for the Iraq war debacle. Blair’s decision to act as a mouthpiece for Bush’s questionable arguments for the war and take part in Washington’s bungled prewar planning made the prime minister enemies at home and in the Arab world. He also was criticised for supporting the Bush administration’s decision to do little to try to stop Israel’s inconclusive war with Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer.

His role as a Middle East envoy “could be a painful reminder of the most unhappy aspects of his premiership, as he encounters Arab suspicion that he is merely a lackey of George W. Bush, and Arab anger over Iraq and the Lebanon war of 2006,” said an op-ed piece Wednesday in The Guardian. But it said Blair would deserve enormous credit if he were to defy those odds by “providing the dogged, daily application of pressure and pursuit of detail that the Israel-Palestine conflict requires” and which he demonstrated in Northern Ireland.

In parliament on Wednesday, Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley praised Blair for his success in Northern Ireland and wished him the best in the Middle East. “He has entered into another colossal task. I hope that what happened in Northern Ireland will be repeated and at the end of the day he will be able to look back and say it was well worthwhile,” Paisley said.

In his home constituency of Sedgefield, there were doubts Blair could find traction in his new position.

“I don’t know why he would want that job because he’s not popular with Arab nations,” 60-year-old Jack Luke said.

“Maybe it’s just to stay in the limelight.” But Engin Karaca, who came to Britain from eastern Turkey five years ago, believes Blair can make a difference.

“He has good friends in the Middle East and I think they trust him,” the 30-year-old shop assistant said.

Blair’s new job will likely deal primarily with helping the Palestinian Authority develop economic support and reform for Palestinian institutions as well as looking at rule of law questions. At first, it likely would not involve mediation or negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Blair replaces James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank, who stepped down after less than a year as the last Quartet envoy in frustration following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Since then, the situation has become even more complicated by Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, the weakness of Palestinian and Israeli leaders, and deepening animosity on both sides of the six-year conflict.

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