Is Blair headed for Middle East hot seat?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tony Blair could soon find himself on a diplomatic hot seat that has burned other high-profile players if the Bush administration pushes him to become Middle East envoy.

Tony Blair could soon find himself on a diplomatic hot seat that has burned other high-profile players if the Bush administration pushes him to become Middle East envoy. Blair is pictured here in a file photo. REUTERS

And Blair’s chances for success would seem no more promising, analysts said.

Washington has signaled its interest in Blair taking the job of special envoy representing the “Quartet” of world powers trying to mediate the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In New York, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue of Blair’s role during a Quartet phone call on Thursday. “The issue is still under discussion,” the spokeswoman said.

If the idea goes forward, it could reflect a renewed U.S. sense of urgency in the aftermath of Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last week, widely seen as a blow to President George W. Bush’s Middle East policy.

“If this is serious, it’s about time,” said Judith Kipper, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Bush had promised to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian problem many times before but that has never materialized.”

Blair leaves office next week and has yet to say whether he wants the envoy job, but he has international stature and a close relationship with Bush that could help the Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, United Nations and Russia.

He would also face tough obstacles.

Blair is deeply unpopular in the Arab world, a vital component of any Middle East peace deal, for Britain’s role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and his refusal to press for an immediate cease-fire in last year’s Israel-Hezbollah war.

Blair has also paid a steep political price at home for embracing Bush and enlisting in the Iraq war, for which his British critics have derided him as Bush’s “poodle.”

“His closeness to Bush and association with Iraq could definitely be a hindrance,” said Haim Malka, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Most Palestinians are skeptical of Bush’s ability to act as an honest broker for peace, having sided so often with Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region.


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has backed Blair becoming “actively involved” in the Middle East, but the British leader and the Israelis have not always seen eye to eye on how best to move forward with the Palestinians.

Blair frequently has urged Bush to take a more assertive role in resolving the conflict, seeing it as one of the catalysts for Islamic militancy fueling the post-invasion violence in Iraq -- a linkage that Israeli officials reject.

Blair also would meet strong resistance from Israel if he pressed for the dismantling of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and other major concessions to help bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas Islamists.

Olmert insisted during a White House visit this week that the Palestinians would have to meet a series of tests of security and governance before Israel would agree to full-scale talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state.

While pondering his job prospects, Blair is almost certain to consider the fate of the last high-profile peace effort.

In the final days of his presidency, Bill Clinton failed in a direct attempt to broker a final-status deal between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

That was followed by years of intense fighting that has only driven a deeper wedge between the two peoples.

The Quartet’s last envoy, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, stepped down in frustration last April.

Washington is now making overtures to Blair, feeding speculation it is laying the groundwork for an appointment.

Bush spoke to Blair via video teleconference on Thursday for what the White House said was the signing of a defense cooperation treaty.

Though aides refused to say whether Bush brought up the envoy job, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: “They talk about the Middle East every time they speak. I’m going to leave it to the prime minister to make any announcements about his future.”

Asked to comment on Quartet consultations on Blair, his office, which has dismissed reports in recent weeks that he would become World Bank president or European Union president, remained tight-lipped.

“I’m the prime minister’s spokesman, not the next-week-ex-prime-minister’s spokesman. No comment,” his spokesman said curtly.