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Blair is named Mideast envoy for the `quartet'

The former British prime minister will focus on aid, economics and governance in the Palestinian territories.

June 28, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was formally named special envoy for the Middle East on Wednesday in a bid backed by President Bush to apply the energies of a loyal ally to the region's moribund peace efforts.

On the same day that Blair relinquished leadership of Britain's government, the so-called quartet of world powers monitoring Mideast peace efforts announced his new duties. The quartet consists of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Blair's job will focus on narrow and technical topics rather than broader issues related to a final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, officials said. His assignment is to increase humanitarian aid, strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the governance of the territories.

In a statement released at the United Nations, the quartet said Blair "has long demonstrated his commitment on these issues."

Officials hope Blair's appointment will help boost support for the relatively moderate government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in its competition with the Hamas militants who took control of the Gaza Strip two weeks ago.

U.S. and Israeli officials welcomed the appointment, which had been expected. But reaction was cool in the Arab world, where Blair is viewed more skeptically because of his close alliance with Bush and the positions he took on the invasion of Iraq and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The appointment comes when the Bush administration has been searching for a way to make progress on Mideast peace during the president's last 18 months in office, even though, by most accounts, chances for a breakthrough are minute.

One U.S. official, in a recent interview, referred to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent efforts to restart talks as a "debacle." Rice and other top officials hope Blair will help convince Palestinians that life would be better under moderate leaders than under Hamas militants.

Diplomats said the quartet signed on to Blair's appointment despite the misgivings of Russia and the European Union, including fears that the appointment would weaken the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

Many European officials have privately expressed concerns that the quartet has been dominated by the United States and sometimes jokingly refer to the group as "the quartet minus three."

The limited assignment being handed to Blair is similar to that of former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, who served as a Mideast envoy for the quartet in 2005 and 2006. Wolfensohn then resigned, complaining that the West's decision to boycott the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government had made his task impossible.

Bush issued a statement Wednesday praising Blair as a "visionary leader" who "stands up for his beliefs and has the courage of his convictions."

In a commentary published in the British newspaper the Sun, Bush sought to dispel common criticism that Blair was his "poodle," saying, "He's bigger than that. This is just background noise."

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement praising Blair as "a true friend of Israel" and vowed cooperation with the highly visible new envoy, who will have a staff and offices in the city.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that a top aide to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was more pessimistic.

"Our experience with Tony Blair as Britain's prime minister has not been encouraging," said the aide, Ghazi Hamad. "He has always adopted the American and Israeli positions."

Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political analyst, agreed. "I don't think we expect much for Mr. Blair or his mission," Jarbawi said. "We've seen so many envoys coming and going ... and all the while Israel is building settlements, putting up a wall and killing Palestinians."

Bush appeared at a mosque in Washington on Wednesday to reach out to Muslims worldwide. He said he would appoint an envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 57 nations. Bush did not name the envoy, who he said would share "America's views and values."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Jerusalem, Kim Murphy in London and James Gerstenzang in Washington and Noha El Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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