WASHINGTON - Britain's Tony Blair is playing a central but largely unheralded role in trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and perhaps avert a Palestinian push for full UN membership later this month.
As described by Western diplomats, the former British prime minister's effort in part reflects a vacuum left by the United States following the May resignation of former Senator George Mitchell as its special envoy for Middle East peace.
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Blair's specific task is to try to win agreement among the so-called Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- on a statement that might lure both sides back into peace talks after a gap of nearly a year.
If he fails, and if the Palestinians seek full membership during the UN General Assembly session that begins on Sept. 19 over Israeli and US objections, the result could be a diplomatic snafu that leaves the two sides even farther apart.
Diplomats and analysts describe Blair's challenge as Sisyphean and they
question whether Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is genuinely interested in resuming
peace negotiations for now.
Blair's diplomacy to craft a consensus statement appears to be
accelerating. In the past week he quietly met Netanyahu in Jerusalem and
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union foreign policy
chief Catherine Ashton in Paris.
He plans to return to the region this weekend and is expected in the
next few days to see Netanyahu again and to sit down with Palestinian
officials.Too late for a solution?
The Quartet's last high-level meeting on July 11 failed to yield
agreement on a statement and diplomats cited four key disputes -- the
language on borders, referring to Israel as a Jewish state, the United
Nations' role and Jewish settlements.
One diplomat said he viewed Blair's efforts "with sympathy and
skepticism," saying that it would be very difficult to bridge the gaps
within the Quartet and between the two sides.
"There is a vacuum. Ultimately, I don't think Tony Blair is going to
fill it," said the diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's
probably too late to pull out a diplomatic solution to September."
"September" has become shorthand for the diplomatic train wreck widely
forecast this month when the Palestinians may seek full membership at
the United Nations for a state of Palestine in the West Bank, the Gaza
Strip and East Jerusalem, territories occupied by Israel in a 1967 war.
Israel is lobbying against the Palestinian bid, which it sees as an effort to isolate and delegitimize it.
The Palestinians are now UN observers without voting rights. To become a
full member, their bid would have to be blessed by the UN Security
Council, where the United States has a veto and is all but certain to
The Palestinians could also seek lesser status, for example as a
nonmember observer state, which would be a kind of implicit UN
recognition of a Palestinian state and could lead to its joining other
international organizations or treaties.
Israel fears this could enable the Palestinians to mount legal
challenges, for example at the International Criminal Court, and extend
the conflict into new arenas.
Outsourcing to Blair?
As a result, Blair is trying to get the parties back into peace talks, a
step that may give the Palestinians a way to avoid the UN and
antagonizing the United States and Israel.
Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel and to Egypt who is now
at Princeton University, said President Barack Obama's administration
had searched for an Israeli-Palestinian strategy for two-and-a-half
years without success.
"That partially reflects the fact that the person they thought was
really going to grab hold of the policy and make it run, which was
George Mitchell, didn't, and since Mitchell's departure, there really is
no one who is identifiable as the go-to person," Kurtzer said.
"There is a bit of outsourcing going on to someone like Tony Blair just
to see if he can make something work," he added. "If he can, the
administration will glom on to it and if he can't, the administration
has not soiled its nest."
The key issues to be resolved within the Quartet, and among the parties,
include how any statement addresses the borders between Israel and a
future Palestinian state, diplomats said.
In a May 19 speech, Obama gave the Palestinians a victory by saying "the
borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with
mutually agreed swaps."
Israel, which hopes to hold on to some of the territory it seized in the
1967 war, dislikes the US suggestion that the those borders should be
the starting point for talks.
Another sticking point is referring to Israel as a Jewish state, a
stance Palestinians say undermines a "right of return" for Palestinians
who fled or were forced from their homes.
US says it's in the lead
A senior US official said the United States was leading the effort to
bring the parties back into talks, describing Blair as trying to realize
the vision laid out by Obama.
The official, who also requested anonymity, rejected any suggestion of a
vacuum on the US side, pointing to the Obama speech as setting the
framework for the current effort.
"We are leading this effort," he said. "The president has given us this
platform, everyone is working from that platform, and Blair, with all of
his talents is a very important part of that."
Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think
tank said it would be very difficult to get the parties into talks
because neither now seems to want them.
Asked why the Obama administration may have turned to Blair to do much
of the current diplomatic work, he said it reflects in part Blair's
track record working with the Palestinians.
"It has something to do with the administration not feeling it has a
senior envoy with bandwidth to do this right now," he said. "And it has
something to do with not wanting to expose the president politically by
seeming to be pressuring Israel."