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Opinion: Blair Taking Small Steps Toward Middle East Peace

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has kept busy in the year since he left office. He has taken on the thankless job of an envoy to the Middle East and has made some progress, said Deutsche Welle's Peter Phillip.

Opinion graphic

For years, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood by US President George W. Bush's side as his faithful friend and ally. While some see Blair's appointment as the Middle East Quartet's Special Envoy as a friendly favor, there are likely other reasons he was appointed on June 27, 2007, the same day he stepped down as prime minister.

Yes, Blair blindly followed Washington into war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he also significantly contributed to the success of peace negotiations with Northern Ireland and to end the war in Sierra Leone.

Blair likely never suspected what kind of a mission he had accepted, although there were sufficient warning signs. His predecessor, former World Bank head James Wolfensohn, held the job less than a year before packing it in, frustrated in April of 2006. No one was found to replace him until Blair came, bringing significant baggage with him. Blair was seen as a representative of British ex-colonial power, as the right hand of Israel's close ally, Bush, and as an occupying force in Iraq.

But Blair seems to have taken to his new task, the goals of which are fairly narrowly defined. The US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, which make up the "Quartet," gave him the job of helping Palestinians build and rebuild their infrastructure. This will help living conditions to normalize so that they can gradually begin to create a Palestinian state.

Blair faces a long haul

Peter Philipp

Peter Philipp

Being actively involved in peace negotiations is not a part of the former prime minister's mandate. And it is good that way, because Blair would face a great number of road blocks.

The Arab side, due to the resentments already mentioned, would particularly mistrust him. Soon after Blair was appointed, the Islamist Hamas organization openly and clearly stated that the group did not believe that Blair could take a neutral position and that it would not cooperate with him.

The threat would hardly have impressed Blair, as he, like Bush and the Israeli regime, is a staunch believer that no one should talk to or work with Hamas until the group accepts Israel's right to exist and respects agreements between the PLO and Israel, in particular the Oslo Accords.

As Hamas' stance along with Israel's inflexibility have hindered successful peace negotiations, Blair might feel he can succeed if he takes small steps towards his goals. An economic conference was recently held in the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem. A conference to support Palestinian peace and justice efforts was recently held in Berlin.

These small steps and small successes might be tedious, but they are creating confidence, and confidence is something that is missing completely in the Middle East. Small steps require a lot of patience, tenacity and perseverance. Blair has already shown he has these qualities and so he will surely stay in the job longer than his predecessor.

Peter Philipp is Deutsche Welle's chief correspondent and an expert on the Middle East. (th)

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