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Pol/Econ: Blair to Israel!
Thursday, 28 June 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
Well hours after Mr Brown was appointed as Prime Minister, having received the seals of office, sat behind the desk and met with the Cabinet Secretary and begun to draw up little lists of people to sit on various committees and in the cabinet- he got his first piece of unwelcome news. You see Mr Brown will address the General Assembly of the UN for the first time in September and will be hoping to make an impact on the Middle East as well- but someone else is going to be there taking the limelight with a very Middle Eastern focus.

Yup there is only one person who could take Mr Brown's limelight, one person who could put the Foreign Office into what has been described this evening as an institutional sulk, could enrage not merely the Russians but also the major powers of Europe, as well as delighting the White House- who is that one person.

Step forward Anthony Charles Lynton Blair- former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and now envoy of the quartet to Israel and Palestine!

The key question tonight though isn't really about the sulks and the feuds- though Mr Brown will be irritated that the man who he thought he had got shot of has turned up again- but will be Mr Blair's potential as a peace maker. Reputations in the region are easily ruined- and though Mr Blair has had some success as a peace maker- in Northern Ireland (though much of the acheivement should go to his predecessor Sir John Major who took the key steps) he has never faced a situation of such complexity. Northern Ireland involved two groups- the Protestants and the Catholics- and very little outside interference. The Palestinian question involves two parties- Israel and Palestine- but there are other parties deeply involves- rightwing Americans who will always give an audience to Likud and more seriously perhaps Iran and Syria who have funded Hamas- and of course there is the way that the issues of Lebanon a troubled country fit with the issues inside the West Bank and Gaza. Now of course there is the additional problem of the split in the Palestinian leadership- though Mr Blair has contacted and got the support of Mr Abbas- has he got the support of the Hamas leadership.

What is the prognostication for Mr Blair's success in this new role- has he a chance- and if so a chance of what- its worth laying out the positive and negative aspects of Mr Blair's capability to take this role on before coming to an opinion.

Blair leaving or not!
Mr Blair has never lacked political skill or energy or idealistic vision. As Prime Minister in the United Kingdom he maintained a ceaseless round of activity- always promising some new dawn or new arrival. In foreign affairs particularly, Mr Blair was a visionary- seeing where few others could the virtues of intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone- and of course Iraq. Perhaps his most obvious success was in Northern Ireland, where the Prime Minister's energy meant that he was always on hand to bash heads together, to hammer out compromises and make phone calls. Having managed a peace process, he also knows how slow such a process is and how long it can take. Mr Blair is very much a man who sees an issue in terms of what he argues is its essence- cutting through the data to the core principle at stake- that makes him a good negotiator because others trust him more than they might trust the emolient phrases of someone more reconciled to complexity.

He also brings to the table the fact that he has a wide political appeal- at the moment battered by his Premiership it might not seem that way- but he has emmense skills of persuasion. He is a very clever manipulator of image- the story of him waiting for 40 minutes till dawn arose when he won the election in 1997 so that he would announce a new dawn as the sun rose is merely one instance which demonstrates how aware he is in terms of what an image means. Furthermore he has wide appeal both in America and Israel. If anyone can sell a Palestinian state to the Republican party it is Mr Blair- and his connections are strong on both sides of the US political aisle- being a close friend of the Clintons and of President Bush.

Despite all this he has many negatives. His reputation on the Arab street isn't good- his reputation in Arab capitols particularly Damascus and Tehran, key players in the Israeli issue- is not good either. The shadows of Iraq hang over him- in both the West and the East. He won't be seen as an honest broker by Hamas- indeed they have said as much and in that sense Mr Blair may need to prove his Arabist tendencies when he arrives. Another serious problem is that Mr Blair as Prime Minister in the UK never was really happy with detail- he has the faith and the confidence in himself, the intelligence to grasp the main point, but detail doesn't obsess him- he isn't a master of process either- he prefers informality to formality. These are issues in dealing with the Middle East- it remains to be seen whether he can overcome them.

Ultimately though it will be events outside of the area that may determine Mr Blair's progress- a war against Iran may make his life more difficult- success in Iraq would make it easier- the problem is that so many events- a new election in the US or even in Palestine or Israel could change the situation completely in ways that we cannot expect at the moment- a global or regional economic downturn as well would alter things completely.

There can be no question of Mr Blair's political talent- no question at all of his willingness to strive hard or his idealism- his mastery of detail and his ability to woo Arabs distrustful after Iraq must be in question- however there is a nightmare scenario I am sure haunting the new Prime Minister- what if he Gordon Brown were to end up observing Mr Blair's triumph in 2010 bringing peace to the Arab Israeli conflict as the new leader of the opposition!

Now that would make him scowl...