Analysis: A beleaguered, bleary-eyed Blair abroad

Israel is the last place where British Prime Minister Tony Blair will ever be accused of a lack of good will. His steadfast defense of Israel's right to act forcefully against Hizbullah in this summer's fighting is still a fresh memory, as is the political damage Blair incurred, at home and abroad, for this brave stance. But even his many admirers here are beginning to ask if he is beginning to lose his grip on reality, at least a bit. This was probably Blair's last visit to Israel as prime minister and he is already becoming irrelevant. As he heads into what are almost certainly the last six months of his premiership, Blair is focusing on securing what he hopes will be the legacy of his decade in office. Yes, there were reforms in Britain's education and health sectors, widespread changes in its legal and political structure, and continued economic growth, but his defining moment will remain his partnership with US President George W. Bush in the war on terror and - above all - the invasion of Iraq. There is near total consensus within the British political and media establishments, both Left and Right, that Blair's actions in Iraq have been an unmitigated disaster, blighting his prime ministership and casting a pall over all his other achievements. Undeterred to the last, Blair is still convinced that he was right in sending British troops to Basra. In his visit to them over the weekend, he made it quite clear that as long as he's in office, they will be staying in Iraq. While doing a cut-and-run, bringing the boys home for the New Year, might have regained Blair some popularity, he's not tempted by easy solutions - at least in Iraq. Which brought him to Jerusalem on Monday. During his previous visit three months ago, Blair made the rounds of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, proffering lots of smiles to the cameras and precious little else. That visit achieved nothing of substance. What are the chances of this one doing any better? Blair supported the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group for talks with Iran and Syria over Iraq's future, theoretically linking a way out of the Iraqi quagmire with forcing Israel to sit down with the Syrians and the Palestinians. This was his premise when his itinerary - six Middle East countries in four days - was hastily drawn up. Since then, Bush has had time to pour cold water on Blair's earnest intentions and to make it clear that as long as he's in charge, Iran and Syria - firmly anchored in the axis of evil - are not partners for anything. Blair got the message and changed his tune accordingly, maintaining this week that the ball is firmly in Syria's court, and advocating sanctions against Iran. So if nothing is going to change in Iraq in the near future, save for a new influx of US troops, and if Israel isn't going to be talking to Bashar Assad's Syria any time soon, what's Blair doing here? This isn't just another foreign jaunt for him. Back home, he's embroiled in the cash-for-honors scandal, in which heavy donors to the Labor Party were promised peerages, allegedly in exchange for their millions, granting him the dubious distinction as the UK's first sitting prime minister to be questioned in a criminal investigation (an experience that our local PMs can teach him quite a bit about). Accompanying Blair in Israel is the main suspect in the investigation, Lord Michael Levy, a close friend who doubles as a fund-raiser and special envoy to the Middle East. The two are flying back to face the music in London, where the police are trying to trip them up into incriminating each other. Meanwhile, Blair is still convinced that in the course of a 24-hour visit, he can help Israelis and Palestinians move a bit closer to real negotiations. Perhaps the investigation has disoriented Blair and Levy to such a degree that they don't realize that there isn't much of a Palestinian side with which to do business. If protocol were consulted, Blair would have had to meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh - but Haniyeh's the leader of a terrorist organization, so no photo-ops for him. The PA chairman who received Blair in Ramallah on Monday morning has no control over his government, and his armed forces are little more than a bunch of warring militias. Blair might be eager to support Mahmoud Abbas's call for new elections, but he's probably causing Abbas more damage since Hamas can now claim that new elections would constitute yet another capitulation to Western powers. With chaos so rampant among the Palestinians, it's superfluous to point out that Israel's government is neither popular nor stable enough to deliver anything to the negotiation table. To be fair to Blair, he admitted he had no magic solutions up his sleeve and that he was here mainly in "listening mode." But if even such an inveterate optimist as Blair believes that he has any chance of moving the parties toward each other in the six months he's got left at Downing Street, perhaps he really is in need of a good rest.