The expected appointment of outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the international Quartet's new envoy to the Middle East was greeted with a chorus of skepticism and downright derision by much of the British press on Tuesday. This reaction can be attributed at least in part to a feeling in Britain that Blair has outstayed his welcome and that, after more than a decade at 10 Downing Street, he should be heading into the sunset. But much of the hostility is due to his controversial positions on the Middle East - and mirrors the lack of enthusiasm of the Russians and part of the European Union leadership at the Blair appointment - not least because his candidacy was suggested by US President George W. Bush. The underlying message of much of the coverage was that Blair is doomed to failure. There is no way that the Arab nations, and especially the Palestinians, are going to trust an envoy who was Bush's partner in the war in Iraq, supported Israel's right to retaliate in Lebanon last summer - blocking calls for an immediate cease-fire - and has recently been one of the main proponents of isolating Hamas. Correspondents in Gaza and Beirut reported on the dismay of the man-on-the-street at the appointment. But these past positions actually make Blair the perfect envoy. Here are four reasons why:
First, it might be a healthy break with tradition to have an envoy representing, inter alia, the UN and the EU who doesn't instinctively take the Palestinian side and see Israeli aggression as the root cause of all the region's ills.
A long line of international representatives have returned home empty-handed, usually blaming Israeli intransigence. Since that was their position from the start, it's small wonder that Israeli governments seldom had any inclination to use their services.
Previous mediators might have been popular with the Palestinians, but it doesn't seem to have helped them achieve results. But if the problem really is a lack of Israeli cooperation, then it stands to reason that the envoy should be someone Jerusalem trusts. And Blair definitely fits that bill. As someone who has proven himself a true friend, he will be taken seriously, even when he has less than comfortable tidings to deliver.
The second reason is that Blair's take on the conflict is much more complex than his critics are willing to give him credit for. His sympathy for Israel doesn't mean he is an instinctive right-wing neo-con who thinks former public security minister Uzi Landau is the only politician worthy of leading Israel.
Unlike Bush, who almost from the start was hostile to Yasser Arafat, never inviting him to the White House, Blair's term of office began in the heady Clinton years, when Oslo still seemed an inevitable process. He welcomed Arafat to London and was a keen supporter of the Camp David talks. Disillusionment came much later.
Despite being on friendly terms with all four Israeli prime ministers of the last decade, two of the Likudniks and one from Kadima, Blair's basic Middle East positions could most accurately be appraised as somewhere between the Israeli Labor Party and Meretz. He is the only current Western leader to have been intimately involved with the region for that long, experiencing euphoria and despair. He has the necessary sense of perspective.
The third reason is the support of the Bush administration. In some parts of Europe, this might be seen as a major drawback, but the fact remains that no Middle East peace initiative has ever advanced beyond the embryonic stage without receiving the US stamp of approval early on. No amount of pouting by Vladimir Putin is going to change this anytime soon.
The masses on the "Arab street" might clamor and curse the great Satan for doing the Jews' bidding, but ultimately, the Arab leaders respect raw power. Blair will be arriving this time, not as the leader of a second-rate power but as the plenipotentiary of the world's only superpower. No other envoy, not even some of the US's own ambassadors and secretaries of state, have had such implicit backing from the White House.
The fourth reason is Blair's personal motivation. After one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of British politics, the longest-serving Labor prime minister, the only one to lead it to victory in three consecutive general elections, he is still only 54, with young children. It would be perfectly understandable for him to opt for early retirement from public life, making for the lucrative US lecture circuit, where he can probably command six-figure fees for a single appearance. He still has to pay 3.5 million for a large house in London's Connaught Square.
His seeming eagerness to undertake a job that no statesman before him has managed to pull off speaks volumes for his sincerity.
Blair cannot be accused of naivet . His 10 years in office were characterized by an addiction to spin, media manipulation, cronyism and political skullduggery, but at least his actions in this part of the world seem to have been devoid of opportunism. Blair overcame significant opposition within his own party and in Britain as a whole to take part in the Iraq war, staying the course unapologetically until his last day in power despite the near unanimous verdict that it had fatally marked his premiership.
If anything, the forces he faced in his support for Israel during the Second Lebanon War were even greater, but Blair was unswerving. There is no question that it would have been to his political advantage to join the parliamentary and media chorus condemning Israel's "disproportionate" actions. Instead he persevered, and many believe that more than any other decision, that was what forced him to announce his resignation earlier than he originally planned.
Blair has already joined the ranks of David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, British prime ministers who have supported Zionism and the Jewish state despite ingrained prejudice and anti-Semitism in part of their country, acting according to their conscience rather than political expediency. His readiness to prefer a difficult diplomatic mission to comfortable retirement proves his worthiness once again.