Tue, Jul 10, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Tony Blair is a good choice for mediator in the Middle East

By Robert Hunter

The release of an abducted BBC journalist in Gaza is being seen by some as an attempt by Hamas (which denies any part in the kidnapping) to curry favor with Tony Blair, who on stepping down as Britain's prime minister was appointed international envoy to Israel and Palestine. Blair has the thankless task of helping Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas build institutions for a viable state, following Hamas' military takeover of Gaza.

Given the stakes, this is a task worth undertaking despite the high risk of failure. But unless Blair gets a lot of unexpected support, failure is what will happen.

Four basic facts govern Blair's role:

■ No peace is possible unless the Palestinian government becomes master in its own house;

■ Nothing is possible if Gaza remains a virtual charnel house;

■ Abbas cannot succeed and Hamas cannot be politically weakened unless there is massive external economic assistance;

■ It is imperative to limit the damage caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to everything else that has to be done in the Middle East.

Blair isn't the first statesman to try helping the Palestinians. James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, tried earlier in Bush's term. Wolfensohn made some progress, but it was not enough, especially when the US, Israel, and the EU chose to starve the Palestinians financially after Hamas won its unexpected victory in last year's Palestinian elections. Wolfensohn quit in frustration.

Blair is the most senior out-of-power statesman ever to get engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He cannot be dismissed as a functionary with no political base. His role has been blessed both by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He has a long history of engagement in Arab-Israeli issues, and for years pressed for effective outside efforts to move the Palestine problem toward resolution.

At the same time, Blair won't just take orders from the US. That would be the kiss of death, following Blair's controversial mimicking of US policy in Iraq. Instead, at least on paper, Blair will work for the so-called Quartet, which also includes the EU, the UN and Russia. Also, his formal role is limited to helping the Palestinians sort out their economic and political affairs, not trying to negotiate a peace settlement -- a task reserved for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But Blair's high political profile means that what he does can't be divorced from the broader politics or quietly played down if things don't go well.

At the least, Blair must press for a radical increase in funds provided by the outside world to the Palestinian government as well as to the 1.4 million Palestinians trapped in Hamas-run Gaza. So far the US has pledged US$40 million in humanitarian funds for Gaza (just US$30 a person) and about US$86 million in security training money for the West Bank. These sums will be added to Palestinian tax receipts that Israel collected but refused to hand to over to a government that included Hamas; Israel is now releasing about half of the approximately US$700 million. But total funds pledged by all sources are only a small fraction of what is urgently needed.

If Abbas is to compete with Hamas and its well-developed social-welfare structure and to avert human catastrophe in Gaza, he needs billions rather than millions of dollars in aid. Along with a major increase in US funds, the EU needs to increase its aid dramatically. But if outside money is to flow, Blair must get the Palestinian government to rein in its rampant corruption.

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