(photo credit: Simon Dawson/AP)
Israel seemed unconcerned Thursday by the appointment of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, despite media reports that he is likely to be more critical of Israel than his predecessor, with officials in Jerusalem pointing out that Miliband has made few public pronouncements on the Middle East.
Miliband, 41, was selected as foreign secretary on Thursday by new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He will be the youngest foreign secretary in some 30 years.
One official in Jerusalem said that Miliband, who is Jewish, was expected to follow Brown's policies toward Israel. Brown is considered to be a friend of Israel.
The BBC reported on its Web site that "Miliband's Jewish background will be noted particularly in the Middle East. Israel will welcome this - but equally it allows him the freedom to criticize Israel, as he has done, without being accused of anti-Semitism."
Despite the BBC's confidence that Israel would welcome a Jewish foreign secretary, some government officials in Jerusalem - not knowing of Miliband's Jewish background - noted that a few of the most withering of Israel's critics in England are Jews.
Officials in Jerusalem were also unfamiliar with Miliband's criticism of Israel. According to press reports at the time, Miliband was critical in a cabinet meeting last July of Blair's refusal to denounce Israel for its actions during the Second Lebanon War.
The BBC reported that Miliband's appointment could presage a shift "in British foreign policy to one in which criticism of the United States and Israel is not off the agenda - as it was under Tony Blair."
Miliband's father, a Marxist theoretician, was originally from Poland, and moved to England in 1940 from Belgium. His brother, Ed, is also a minister in Brown's cabinet.
Miliband was a key adviser to Blair when he became prime minister in 1997. He served in the cabinet for over a year as environment secretary, and has been widely touted as a future Labor party head.
Also on Thursday, former prime minister Tony Blair said in an interview published in the Northern Echo newspaper in Britain that he will begin his new job as the Quartet's Middle East envoy immediately and will likely come to the region next month.
Blair defined his job as "preparing the ground for a negotiated settlement, and the key to that is to prepare the Palestinians for statehood."
"There have to be two states - Israel confident in its security and Palestinians with a viable state, not merely in terms of its territory, but also in terms of its institutions, its capability - otherwise there won't be a deal," he said.
"Anywhere you go in the world, this is the issue which concerns people, not merely because of the plight of the Israelis and the Palestinians, but also the symbolism of the dispute, what it says about the state of the relationship between the Western world and the Muslim world and between different cultures and religions. It is a fundamental issue," he said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni phoned Blair on Thursday and congratulated him on his new job. The Foreign Ministry put out a statement welcoming the appointment, and saying that Blair's "experience, knowledge and abilities will surely advance the important processes set out as goals by the Quartet."
Government officials in Jerusalem said they were content with Blair's mandate, which was essentially to engage in Palestinian Authority institution building.
The officials said they were satisfied that Blair's job was not defined as a mediator, because Israel preferred to deal directly with the Palestinians.