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What’s Blair up to in the Middle East?

Hillary Clinton had a meeting with Tony Blair on 11 February in his capacity as Middle East envoy of the ‘Quartet’, the group which comprises the US, the EU, Russia and the UN. She said Blair would ‘intensify’ his partnership with Senator George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, to develop a future Palestinian state. Blair spoke of ‘bottom-up change’ and welcomed progress made in the West Bank.

All this raises several interesting questions. The first question: who controls Tony Blair as envoy? The Quartet is not an institution with its own secretariat and budget. When Blair’s mission was set up in 2007, the Russians went along with his appointment but made clear that they would not be paying for it. I understand that the British government does not pay. Whether Blair himself is paid, and if so how much, is perhaps of more interest to Blair-watchers than to Middle East-watchers, but even his travel costs alone can’t be cheap.

Does Washington pick up the tab? Given the assumption that he who pays the piper calls the tune, it seems likely. Blair’s original terms of reference were laid down by Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state, with little if any consultation with other members of the Quartet. And Clinton’s statement on 11 February was issued from the State Department, with no indication that other members had been consulted. There has been nothing yet from other capitals, though the Chinese news agency has reported the matter deadpan (most media have ignored it).

The next question concerns those terms of reference. Blair is customarily referred to in the media as the Quartet’s ‘peace envoy’. But the terms of reference don’t bear that out: his task was defined as mobilising aid to the Palestinians, working on Palestinian governance, promoting Palestinian economic development and (the only hint of a wider remit) liaising with other governments in support of the Quartet objectives. I remember being surprised that Blair had accepted a role which seemed to involve a great deal of unrewarding work and to be secondary to the peacemaking role, which Condoleezza Rice explicitly retained for the US government. I thought he would try to expand it, but he has not. Nothing that he has said has gone along with the media’s perception of him as ‘peace envoy’.

Clinton’s statement confirms that Blair’s role has not changed fundamentally. The State Department spokesman was asked on 12 February what ‘intensify’ meant: what would Blair be doing that he hadn’t been doing? He had to stonewall; if there was an answer, it was obvious that the spokesman had not been told what it was. One journalist asked if Blair could get the Arabs and Israelis to resume negotiations; the official State Department record says this was followed by ‘laughter’.

But already the media see things differently. The Reuters headline was ‘Blair to “intensify” work on Mid-East peace – Clinton.’ Again, this is not supported by Blair’s spokesman – with one important exception. This relates to Gaza, on which Blair’s spokesman said that ‘there’s obviously much more to do, especially in Gaza, where we need a new strategy.’ What did he mean?

All members of the Quartet currently insist that before Hamas, which controls Gaza, can join the peace process it must meet certain conditions and in particular recognise Israel. This is interpreted by the US, Britain and others as meaning that there can at present be no talks with Hamas. Russia has always taken a different line, maintaining a dialogue with Hamas which gives them the opportunity to press Hamas to meet the Quartet’s conditions. Russia has never been criticised for this interpretation by other members of the Quartet.

Many, including myself, have argued that Israel’s recognition will flow from negotiation, and that unless Hamas is included in the peace process any agreement reached will be unreal (just as attempting to solve the Palestinian problem a generation ago without involving the PLO was unreal). As Roger Cohen wrote last week in the New York Times, ‘when Arafat and Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, that destroy-Israel charter [of the PLO] was intact. Things change through negotiation, not otherwise.’

Is it possible that Clinton (without consulting her allies) has tipped Blair the wink that it is time to open the door to talks with Hamas? Her statement, with its carefully sterilised reference to ‘bring[ing] change in the living conditions of the people in Gaza’, could be interpreted that way, if only he chose to do it.

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