Jerusalem: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on 23 July kicked off his first visit to the Middle East as the international community’s new envoy to the region, hoping to add new momentum to fledgling peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.
The newly appointed envoy for the “Quartet” of Mideast mediators , the US, EU, UN and Russia, arrived in Israel for his first visit in the new post. During the two-day visit, Blair planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other top officials.
Blair arrives at a promising time. The Palestinian uprising has fizzled and Israel says it is ready to work with the new Palestinian leadership after seven years of stalemate.
But limits on Blair’s responsibilities, he has no authority to negotiate a final peace deal, have already raised questions about his ability to forge a breakthrough, and Israeli and Palestinian officials played down expectations for the visit.
Blair touched down in Tel Aviv in a white, unmarked private jet on Monday afternoon and immediately exited from the Ben Gurion International Airport in a heavily guarded motorcade through the “Gate of Shalom” terminal.
He traveled to the upscale King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where he was met by a horde of photographers. Blair made no comment as he pushed through the crowd into an elevator. Later Monday, he was scheduled to meet with the Israeli foreign and defense ministers, a day before his talks with the two sides’ leaders.
Blair arrived from neighbouring Jordan, where he met with Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib. Jordanian officials said Blair listened to Jordan’s perspective on restarting the Mideast peace process. Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab countries that have made peace with Israel.
The visit comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
US President George W. Bush called last week for an international peace conference on the Middle East in the autumn.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have welcomed the involvement of Blair, who brings a high-profile and well-respected figure to Mideast diplomacy. He is known for his powers of persuasion and track record in forging Northern Ireland’s peace accord.
But in his new job, Blair has been given a relatively limited assignment: to prepare the ground for a Palestinian state by encouraging reform, economic development and institution-building.
There is no mention of trying to help broker a final peace deal, a role the US appears reluctant to cede. Such constraints could quickly turn Blair into the latest of a long succession of well-meaning, yet ultimately ineffective mediators.