British Prime Minister Tony Blair headed to Washington Thursday for talks with US President George Bush expected to focus on the future of Middle East peace following the death of Yasser Arafat.
Tony and George, together again
Blair left London in the afternoon and will hold talks with Bush in the White House the following day, the first foreign leader to meet the re-elected president. The early visit cements Blair's reputation as the US leader's closest ally, but also risks further charges back home that he is simply a US "poodle".
Blair faces intense domestic pressure to reap some benefits from his strong support for the unpopular US-led war in Iraq, and hinted before his departure that the Middle East was where he expected to find this.
"Peace in the Middle East must be the international community's highest priority," Blair said in a statement following Arafat's death. The Palestinian leader died in a Paris hospital in the early hours of Thursday. Blair reiterated his call for action in the region, saying that "the goal of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is one that we must continue to work tirelessly to achieve."
On the plane to Washington, Blair's spokesman said the prime minister saw a "new era" for the peace process. "There is a moment and that moment is to send a signal to the region we are serious about" peace in the Middle East, he told journalists on board the flight.
"If the world sees President Bush and the prime minister saying they are very serious on this issue and we are committed to it, that helps," the spokesman said.
Peace and environment a priority
For the past year and a half, Blair has pledged to make the revival of the peace process a personal priority. He has also tried to persuade Bush to do more to combat global warming since Washington rejected the Kyoto protocol.
With recent British military casualties in Iraq helping to make the war there more unpopular than ever at home, according to one opinion poll this week, Blair's close ties to Bush are causing him problems ahead of a likely British election next year. However, in an interview shortly before his departure Thursday, Blair stressed that this was merely "part of my job".
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, meet in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Friday, April 16, 2004.
"The relationship between Britain and the US is fantastically important," Blair said in an interview with the GMTV television program. "You know, I think there always is, and always should be, a situation in which the British prime minister and the American president get on well together. I regard it as part of my job."
Nonetheless, analysts are skeptical about whether Blair could return to London bearing anything tangible which might assuage his critics. John Kampfner, a Blair biographer and political journalist, said that although Bush had always "politely heard" Blair's case, he generally did little.
Dividends for London?
While the Americans understood that Blair's unflinching loyalty to Bush on Iraq had "brought no dividends and only political flak", they also had to put their own support for Israel into the balance, Kampfner said. "Whatever (Blair) might bring home may only be wafer-thin."
Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs think tank in London, said Blair would be satisfied to achieve any "reinvigorated process" pointing towards a two-state peace. "But I suspect they're not going to go into any details on exactly what that means on the map," she warned.
She said the United States and Israel would have to do much more this time to support a "moderate" like Mahmud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, the former prime minister who brokered a truce with radical Palestinian factions but failed to win much in return from the Israelis.
"If Blair had any sense, he will be talking about what it is exactly that they will get from the Israelis to make the Palestinian situation more viable," she said.