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Blair gets a head start on Middle East talks

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Tony Blair couldn't ask for a better starting point as the new Middle East peace envoy.

The Palestinian uprising has fizzled, and Israel says it's ready to work with a moderate Palestinian leadership after seven years of stalemate.

But the former British prime minister arrives in the region today with only a limited mandate, and, despite his star appeal, he could quickly join a succession of well-meaning yet ultimately ineffective mediators.

A note of caution has come from James Wolfensohn, Mr. Blair's predecessor as envoy of the diplomatic Quartet, made up of the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

In 2005, the former World Bank president was asked to oversee the rebuilding of Gaza after Israel's pullout from the area. Mr. Wolf-ensohn accomplished less than he had hoped and told the Israeli daily Haaretz last week that his main problem had been a lack of authority.

"There was never a desire on the part of the Americans to give up control of the negotiations, and I would doubt that, in the eyes of [senior State Department official] Elliot Abrams and the State Department team, I was ever anything but a nuisance," Mr. Wolfensohn said.

Mr. Blair, who meets separately with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tomorrow, has 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.

Furthermore, he will have to confine his work to the West Bank, since the international community continues to shun the Islamic militant Hamas movement, which has seized control of Gaza.

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

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 is on the defensive in the West Bank. Scores of gunmen from Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement, meanwhile, have surrendered their weapons in exchange for an Israeli amnesty.

The new West Bank government will likely be receptive to Mr. 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 Mr. Abbas' predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Blair "may be able to get something done in terms of institution building and confidence building," Israeli analyst Yossi 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."

But Mr. Wolfensohn was more hopeful.

Asked by Haaretz about Mr. Blair's chances, Mr. 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."