WASHINGTON - Reports that US President
George W Bush has asked outgoing British Prime
Minister Tony Blair to act as a special envoy for
Middle East peace are adding to speculation that
Washington plans to intensify peace efforts
between Israel and the Palestinians, despite last
week's takeover of Gaza by Hamas.
whether those peace efforts will include Hamas, as
well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose
control over the
Palestinian territories has
been reduced to the West Bank, remains doubtful,
as both Bush and Blair have been the most
resistant to engaging Hamas until it recognizes
Israel and renounces the use of violence.
Blair would serve as the special envoy for
the Quartet, which consists of the United Nations,
the European Union, Russia and the United States.
If the reports prove true and Blair
accepts the post, the move is likely to mark a
victory by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
over more hawkish forces within the administration
led by Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott
Abrams and Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
The latter have repeatedly frustrated her
efforts to press Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert to bolster Abbas by dismantling illegal
Jewish settlements and to ease travel restrictions
While White House and
State Department spokespeople, as well as the
Prime Minister's Office in London, declined to
confirm that Blair has been asked to take over the
envoy post, they did little to dampen the
speculation, which followed talks in Washington on
Tuesday between Bush and Olmert.
"Obviously, Prime Minister Blair has been
very active and deeply involved in Middle East
peace issues throughout his prime ministership,"
Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, told
reporters. "It would not surprise me if [Bush and
Blair] have talked about what Prime Minister Blair
would like to do following the end of his term ...
but we don't have anything to announce today."
Nonetheless, the disclosure that Rice's
top Middle East aide, David Welch, as well as
Washington's ambassador in Tel Aviv, Richard
Jones, had also met with Blair in London this week
suggested that the reports were serious. The UN's
former special envoy to the region, Terje
Roed-Larsen, was also reportedly in the British
capital to talk with Blair.
spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said his office is "aware
of this idea" and that her boss is "very
supportive of Prime Minister Blair and of his
continuing involvement in the Middle East and the
The reports come just four
days before the fourth anniversary of Bush's
endorsement of a two-state solution to the
week's events in Gaza, where Hamas routed security
forces controlled by its secular rival, Fatah, the
White House had planned to mark the anniversary by
having Bush make a major policy address on the
Middle East designed to boost Rice's efforts to
offer a "political horizon" to the Palestinians.
Hamas' takeover of Gaza had reportedly
placed those plans in doubt. But an announcement
by Bush that Blair had agreed to act as chief
envoy for the Quartet would provide the kind of
renewed impetus for peace talks between Olmert and
Abbas that Rice has been looking for.
was also encouraged when, in the wake of Hamas'
victory in Gaza, Abbas dissolved the Hamas-led
government of national unity and appointed a new
emergency government headed by a Washington
favorite, former finance minister Salam Fayyad.
"We are going to support President Abbas
and what he wants to do," she said on Monday, when
she also announced that Washington would
immediately send US$86 million in aid to the
Palestinian Authority (PA) that had been suspended
after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January
2006 and formed a government soon after.
By most accounts, Rice hopes to implement
a "West Bank First" strategy designed to bolster
Abbas and his Fatah party by pouring in aid,
persuading Olmert to follow through on previous
pledges to ease travel restrictions and release
Palestinian prisoners, and resuming peace talks
that would provide Palestinians with a "political
horizon" for their own state.
visit to Washington, Olmert indicated his support
for the strategy and said he is prepared to
release hundreds of millions of dollars in tax
money collected by Israel on behalf of the
Palestinians but which was frozen after Hamas took
The strategy is based on the
assumption that a more prosperous and more hopeful
West Bank run by Abbas and Fayyad will diminish
popular support for Hamas among Palestinians,
including in an already impoverished Gaza that,
under Hamas rule, will receive only humanitarian
Blair, who has frequently
urged Bush to take a more assertive role in
resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has
opposed any engagement with Hamas, is also
believed to be in agreement with this approach.
But numerous regional experts have expressed
strong skepticism in recent days about both the
strategy and the assumptions on which it is based.
While this approach may have worked after
Abbas' election to the PA presidency two years
ago, according to a Washington Post column by two
former Middle East negotiators, Robert Malley and
Aaron Miller, "Today, Abbas is challenged by far
more Palestinians and is far less capable of
securing a consensus on any important decision."
Moreover, "For him to accept funds that
can be spent only [in] the West Bank, or
international dealings that exclude Gaza, would
critically undercut his position as a symbol of
the Palestinian nation," they noted, adding that
the strategy underestimates Hamas' influence in
the West Bank itself.
according to Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace
negotiator currently based at the New America
Foundation in Washington, excluding Hamas,
particularly from peace talks, will encourage it
to act as a spoiler.
"If Israel only works
with Fatah," he told public television on Tuesday,
"you incentivize Hamas to undermine that through
violence, [and] then very quickly Israel will lose
its appetite [for further concessions] ... and
that's unlikely to work."
Levy, Malley and
Miller argue for a major revision in Washington's
approach that would encourage a new power-sharing
arrangement between Hamas and Fatah to restore
unity to the Palestinians and at least an indirect
engagement by the US and other Western countries
with Hamas to bolster moderate elements within it
and achieve the consensus needed for Abbas to
negotiate a two-state solution.
Neo-conservatives, whose views are closer
to those of Abrams and Cheney's chief Middle East
adviser, David Wurmser, say the latest events
should result, if anything, in a hardening of US
policy, if not the abandonment of a two-state
In an op-ed in the
Wall Street Journal, Michael Oren of the Likudist
Shalem Center in Jerusalem argued for a "new
paradigm" in which "areas of extensive Palestinian
autonomy in the West Bank" would be established,
while security would be jointly administered by
Israel and Jordan.