Blair May Become Special Mideast Envoy

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Bush administration is laying the groundwork for an announcement of Tony Blair's appointment as a special Middle East envoy for Palestinian governance and economic issues after he steps down as Britain's prime minister, following two months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, according to U.S. officials.

Blair would report to the Quartet overseeing Middle East peace efforts -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- and focus on issues limited to the internal workings of a future Palestinian state. Political negotiations involving Palestinians, Israelis and the Arab states would be left to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the officials said.

The idea, first proposed by Rice, was embraced by the Israeli government during talks between President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week.

"We believe Blair can make a very positive contribution to the peace process," an Israeli diplomat said yesterday.

The Palestinians have yet to be approached on the possibility, but U.S. officials believe they would welcome a Blair appointment. Among Palestinians, Blair is known to have a good working relationship with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas, but he is considered strongly pro-Israel and is closely associated with the Bush administration's Middle East policies, according to Palestinian analysts.

The administration also still has to win formal support for Blair from Russia, according to U.S. officials, who said that the news about Blair's potential appointment began to leak before consultations were completed. Whatever the possible reservations, however, U.S. officials do not expect anyone to block the appointment.

British officials said talk of an appointment was speculative. "There is a lot of speculation about what the prime minister will do after June 27, and we're simply not commenting on any of it," a senior British diplomat said.

But U.S. officials said the appointment could be made in the next few weeks. Bush is considering a speech in the coming weeks to mark the passing of five years since his June 24, 2002, speech calling for a Palestinian state.

Blair's role would be an expanded version of the one previously played by former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn, who resigned in May 2006 out of frustration with the deadlock over aid to the Palestinians after the January election of Hamas, U.S. officials said. Wolfensohn was supposed to help coordinate the economic and political development of the Palestinian Authority after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, as well as foster contacts between Palestinians and Israelis.

But Wolfensohn held the position for only 13 months. In his final report, he warned that neither the United Nations nor private relief groups would be able to fill the vacuum if the Palestinian government collapsed or imploded because of the international cutoff of revenue and aid.

On Tuesday, Bush and Olmert discussed the need to "lay the groundwork" for a Palestinian state that would build up the Palestinians' institutions and economic capacity so that when the state is eventually created it will be able to function as a "well-governed state," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.

C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, was in London yesterday for talks with British officials and met with Blair at No. 10 Downing Street, a State Department official said.

In Washington, White House press secretary Tony Snow deflected questions about Blair. "We got a lot of stuff going on," he said, referring to the Middle East. "But at this particular point, we're not in the business of designating envoys."

Asked if Bush had spoken with Blair about the idea, Snow said: "I don't think he has. I don't have any knowledge, and my guess is I'd know. But, no, I don't know anything."

Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

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