Blair caught in diplomatic crossfire in new job

Allies backed former British prime minister Tony Blair in his new role as Middle East peace envoy for the main global powers, but the Hamas movement poured scorn on the nomination.

The United Nations, United States, Russia and the European Union — the diplomatic Quartet for the Middle East — named Blair as their representative hours after he stood down as British prime minister on Wednesday.

Blair has acknowledged the enormity of his new job, saying that the only answer was the creation of separate Palestinian and Israeli states. ”It will require a huge intensity of focus and work,” he said.

US President George Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas supported Blair. But Hamas, whose forces seized control of the Gaza Strip this month after routing rival Fatah fighters loyal to Abbas, said the appointment ”is not acceptable to Hamas nor to the Palestinians” themselves.

”He will not do anything to support the Palestinian interests but will do everything to support the Israeli occupation,” Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhum told Agence France-Presse in Gaza.

Blair has been criticised in the Arab world for Britain’s role in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and his support of Israel’s war in Lebanon last year.

His appointment was announced after Russia signalled it would not oppose the move, despite earlier reports that it had reservations.

The quartet has since 2003 tried to implement a ”road map” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But the blueprint has languished and failed to meet a target of creating a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel by 2005.

The last quartet envoy, former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn, stood down in frustration in May 2006.

As the new envoy, Blair ”will mobilise international assistance to the Palestinians, working closely with donors and existing coordinating bodies,” UN spokesperson Michele Montas said.

He will also ”help identify and secure appropriate international support in addressing the institutional governance needs of the Palestinian state, focusing as a matter of urgency on the rule of law”, a quartet statement said.

”Tony will help Palestinians develop the political and economic institutions they will need for a democratic, sovereign state able to provide for its people and live in peace and security with Israel,” Bush said.

Olmert, meanwhile, ”believes that Blair can have a favourable impact, in particular by helping the Palestinians develop solid governmental structures”, said the Israeli leader’s spokesperson, Miri Eisin.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said that Abbas ”welcomes the nomination of Blair [and] has given the assurance that he will work with [him] to arrive at a peaceful solution on the basis of two states”.

Blair is tasked with developing plans to ”promote Palestinian economic development, including private-sector partnerships, building on previously agreed frameworks, especially concerning access and movement”, the quartet said.

He is to be supported in his new job by a small team of experts based in Jerusalem and seconded by partner countries and institutions.

Speaking before Parliament for the last time as prime minister, Blair said he wanted ”to give effect to what is now the consensus across the international community that the only way of bringing stability and peace in the Middle East is a two-state solution”.

He said this means ”a state of Israel which is secure and confident in its security, and a Palestinian state that is not merely viable in terms of its territory but in terms of its institutions and governance”.

The quartet statement said Blair will work ”to help create viable and lasting government institutions representing all Palestinians, a robust economy, and a climate of law and order for the Palestinian people”.

Canada — the first country to suspend aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government in March 2006 — congratulated Blair.

”With his experience and commitment to this issue, we are confident that Blair will make an important contribution to building the conditions for a return to the peace process,” Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said. — Sapa-AFP

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Gerard Aziakou
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