By HELENE COOPER, New York Times, June 21, 2007
WASHINGTON, June 20 — The United States is pressing Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain to become a special envoy to the Middle East, representing the diplomatic “quartet” of world powers, administration officials said Wednesday.
The appointment would be the most visible attempt at laying the groundwork for a Palestinian state since President Clinton wrangled with Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak during the waning hours of his administration in 2001.
If the proposal, endorsed by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, goes forward, and if Mr. Blair, who leaves office next week, accepts, he would work on behalf of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia to help the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, build the institutions and apparatus necessary for a viable state.
The proposal shows the renewed urgency in dealing with the changed political landscape brought on by the takeover of Gaza by Hamas. The power shift there has focused efforts on the West Bank, where Mr. Abbas and Fatah retain control.
European and American officials said that so far, the only grumbling about the possible Blair appointment has come from Russia, which has had contentious relations with Britain of late, including the charges regarding the poisoning of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer and a Kremlin critic who died in London in November.
But diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic said that if Mr. Blair wanted the job, it was unlikely that Russia would seek to block the appointment.
C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, met with Mr. Blair in London on Wednesday to make the case, a senior Bush administration official said. Mr. Welch, the official said, would not be in London “if there weren’t some seriousness to this.”
The official likened the talks to the “late stages of a scouting effort, seeing who’s available for an N.B.A. draft,” but added that the United States was not pursuing anyone other than Mr. Blair.
Mr. Bush has spoken to Mr. Blair about the proposal, and discussed it Tuesday with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, Israeli and Bush administration officials said. Senior Israeli officials said Mr. Olmert was also very keen on the idea.
But British officials said Mr. Blair had not yet decided if he would take on the task, and bristled that public comments from the Bush administration were premature.
It remains unclear how broad Mr. Blair’s role would be. American and Israeli officials want him to focus primarily on shoring up Palestinian institutions and governance, economic development and security issues in the West Bank.
Administration officials said Ms. Rice would continue to try to work with Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas on a separate track that addresses the “final status” issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979: Jerusalem’s future, a Palestinian state’s borders and what to do about Palestinian refugees who fled, or were forced to leave, homes in Israel.
Israel, in the past, has been more squeamish about discussing those issues. But that may be changing. Mr. Olmert indicated in meetings at the White House on Tuesday that now that Mr. Abbas had dissolved the national unity government and separated politically from Hamas, Israel was ready to act.
While Mr. Olmert cautioned against moving too fast on “final status” issues, he said he planned to look for ways to empower Mr. Abbas, administration officials said, including releasing tax revenues that Israel had been keeping from the Palestinians.
But the lack of a link between the tracks — final status versus Palestinian institution-building — is the crux of why previous attempts at peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been unsuccessful.
“The one thing we’ve learned is that it is impossible to distinguish between governance, security and politics,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group. “If one doesn’t move, none of them move. That’s the reason why the road map never got off the ground.”
Mr. Malley was referring to President Bush’s “road map” plan for eventual peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which calls for the formation of a Palestinian state after Palestinian officials take certain steps.
The last envoy to represent the quartet, James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, left the post last year, expressing frustration with the lack of progress on the plan.
Certainly, Mr. Blair would bring to the job a higher stature, and might also bring a credibility — particularly with the Arab world — that an American might not be able to match.
During the Israeli-Hezbollah war last summer, for example, Mr. Blair offered to travel to the region and noted at the time that as British prime minister, he could say and do things that did not necessarily carry the baggage of similar actions by Mr. Bush or Ms. Rice, presumably because of America’s close relationship with Israel.
Mr. Blair’s appointment would also be an ironic footnote to the end of his 10 years of stewardship of Britain, given that his support of Mr. Bush and the war in Iraq hurt him politically at home.
But his close relationship with Mr. Bush is part of the reason why Mr. Bush wants Mr. Blair to take the envoy’s role, administration officials said.
On the other hand, Mr. Blair is still wrestling with the perception that his American friend is calling the shots at a time when Mr. Blair is thinking about his own legacy.
From the start, the two men had an unexpected bond, particularly given how close Mr. Blair was to Bill Clinton, with whom he shared a vision of a “third way” in domestic politics. Few had expected a similar bond with Mr. Bush.
But Mr. Blair, associates said, liked Mr. Bush’s directness, and felt strongly that the role of Britain in the world would be enhanced by a close relationship with the United States.