JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Tony Blair arrives in Jerusalem for his first visit as international envoy on Monday, hoping to help end 60 years of peacemaking failure since Britain handed Palestine to Jews and Arabs who remain bitterly at odds.
“Mission Impossible” is what the skeptics have, inevitably, already called the newly retired British prime minister’s mandate as the envoy for the four-power Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. But Blair has said he has hopes of helping solve a critical global problem.
He started a two-day trip to the region in the Jordanian capital Amman on Monday, where he was to meet Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib before heading on to Jerusalem later in the day. Jordan, with Egypt, is one of two Arab states with formal ties with Israel which are promoting an Arab peace proposal.
Few public statements are expected. Blair “is coming very much in listening mode,” a spokesman for the new envoy said.
He will meet Israel’s foreign and defense ministers as well as a top American diplomat in Jerusalem on Monday before talks on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in nearby Ramallah.
Though he himself spoke last week of his hopes of progress, a jaded sense of deja vu pervades both Israeli and Palestinian society — those few Israeli and Palestinian newspapers that devoted space to his arrival betrayed no optimism about it.
“Blair will aim to advance Israel-Palestinian negotiations,” ran the simple headline in Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz daily.
Blair was asked by the Quartet simply to present by September an initial plan for building ruling institutions needed to establish a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But that more limited mandate could expand later into a more direct peacemaking role between the parties, diplomats say.
Blair faces serious obstacles to success in a role that has doomed his predecessors’ efforts. A Palestinian state seems more remote than ever, with their territories divided between Hamas Islamists in the coastal Gaza Strip and Abbas’s secular Fatah faction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank inland.
Israel’s government may be too weak to deliver concessions such as the withdrawal of Jewish settlements. Many Arabs resent Blair’s role in invading Iraq, and the Quartet remains divided over whether he should have a broader negotiating mandate.
In his favor may be eagerness among leaders on both sides to raise their stock at home by showing progress toward peace.
A close relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush may give added clout to Blair, a relatively youthful 54-year-old successful in peacemaking in his Northern Irish backyard.
“I hope I can offer something in bringing about a solution to this issue that is of such fundamental importance to the world,” he said in Lisbon last week after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the Quartet.
Abbas wants Blair to pressure Israel to ease its military grip on the West Bank and take steps to accelerate negotiations.
Hamas, which routed Abbas’s forces in Gaza last month, says the former British leader is pro-Israel and “doomed to fail.”
Instead of a broad peacemaking role, the Quartet asked Blair to raise funds for the Palestinians, help build their governing institutions and promote their economic development.
But the diplomat said Blair was likely to seize a political mediation role despite U.S. qualms: “It was pretty clear that he was not going to be bound by the strict terms of his mandate.
“If he sees wider opportunities, he’ll go for it.”
Israeli officials generally favor a narrower mandate for Blair that would leave the United States in charge of any talks.