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(photo credit: AP)
Amid growing criticism that his administration hasn't focused enough on engagement in the Middle East, US President George W. Bush on Wednesday announced that he would appoint an envoy to an organization of Muslim states and endorsed British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the new Quartet representative. Blair was appointed on Wednesday.
Bush, speaking at the rededication of the Islamic Center of Washington, said the creation of an American envoy posting to the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference was "an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate to Muslim communities our interest in respectful dialogue and continued friendship."
Bush's latest effort to shore up support in the Islamic world came on the same day a new Pew Research Center poll was released showing persistently negative Muslim attitudes toward the United States, in part because of American actions in Iraq.
In a briefing with the foreign press following the president's speech, US public diplomacy czar Karen Hughes said that dialogue was necessary to change perceptions. When an Arab reporter suggested that policy change was more crucial than diplomacy, Hughes said that on "the Number One issue" brought up by Muslim communities around the world - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the American policy of a two-state solution is one that "most people agree with."
In his speech at the Islamic Center, Bush said to applause that, "We will work toward a day when a democratic Palestine lives side by side with Israel in peace."
Hughes acknowledged, though, that a major complaint was a lack of engagement.
"They may think that we need to engage more - we're working on that," said Hughes, pointing to the envoy appointments. Hughes, the US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, called the Blair announcement "a very hopeful sign and an important sign of a very high-level commitment."
But Middle East expert Haim Malka was skeptical of the emphasis on envoys.
"Appointing envoys is important, but unless the strategy and the policy behind the issue changes, I don't think envoys will have much of an impact on the tensions between the US and the Muslim world and the challenges facing the Israeli-Palestinian political process," said Malka, the deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Hughes said the OIC envoy would be tasked with "listening, learning, being present at the debate," explaining that, "This is another avenue for communication and expanded diplomatic engagement."
Meanwhile Blair's focus, according to a statement put out by the Quartet on Wednesday, will be to mobilize international assistance to the Palestinians, to improve Palestinian government and develop the Palestinian economy.
"Quartet Principals noted that recent events in Gaza and the West Bank make it more urgent than ever that we advance the search for peace in the Middle East," the statement read. "Tony Blair will bring continuity and intensity of focus to the work of the Quartet in support of the Palestinians, within the broader framework of the Quartet's efforts to promote an end to the conflict in conformity with the road map."
The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement Wednesday night congratulating Blair on his appointment, and saying that Israel would give him all necessary assistance to help him build-up the Palestinian governing institutions.
"From Israel's point of view, the creation of stable and transparent institutions in the PA constitutes an important element in promoting the diplomatic process," the statement said.
The EU's ambassador to Israel, Ramiro Cibrian, dispelled rumors that the EU was opposed to the appointment because of a fear that Blair would take away from the duties of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
"After two years in Israel, I have reached the conclusion that there is enough work here for everyone," Cibrian joked. He said that the appointment of an envoy with the stature of Blair sent a strong signal that the international community viewed a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a top priority.
Bush spoke by phone with Blair on Wednesday to welcome him into his new role. "I am pleased that this capable man has agreed to continue his work for peace in the Middle East," Bush said in a prepared statement. "The people of the United States of America express our gratitude for his strong friendship and his continued efforts to lay the foundations for freedom in the Middle East."
Hamas condemned the decision to appoint Blair, the AFP news agency reported. "Blair, who supported the invasion of the American forces into Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot be a man of peace. He will not act to defend the Palestinian interests but to defend the Israeli occupation," a Hamas spokesman was quoted as saying.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.