Russians skeptical over Blair's Middle East role

July 15, 2007 - 0:0

Yevgeni Primakov, the former Russian prime minister, added his voice recently to the chorus of skepticism surrounding Tony Blair's new role as international envoy to the Palestinians.

Primakov said that Mr Blair's closeness to President George W Bush meant that he would follow Washington and therefore be incapable of leading diplomatic efforts by the Middle East Quartet - the United Nations, America, the European Union and Russia. "I do not think that Tony Blair will become the Quartet's conductor," Primakov said. "His role will consist of following the U.S. line." Primakov's remarks added to the controversy over Blair's new job which has turned out to be a lot less ambitious than first forecast. Instead of a Middle East envoy empowered to negotiate peace terms between Israelis and Palestinians, the mandate was trimmed to one in which the former prime minister would be the Quartet's representative to help to build the economy and institutions of the Palestinians. At the time of the appointment last month, Blair's people made clear he was itching to extend the scope of the mandate to include peace building. But following his first meetings this week with officials from the Quartet, as well as Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, Blair now appears to have accepted the mandate in spite of its limitations. “Blair is happy with the mandate as it will allow him to do the job that he wants to do," a spokesman for his office said. Blair visited the region several times during his 10 years as prime minister. He will make his first visit as envoy to the Palestinians some time in the next fortnight, the spokesman said, although it is likely to be a brief trip. The expectation is that Blair will be spending much more time in the region later this year. Rumors are swirling around Beit-ul-Moqaddas where, it is predicted, he will be based. The booking of an entire wing of the American Colony Hotel in East Beit-ul-Moqaddas, the part of the city occupied by Israel in the 1967 war and subsequently annexed, has led some to conclude that he will be based in this historic luxury hotel. Primakov's comments echoed sentiments from a senior former political insider in Washington who said Blair's new role amounted to him simply carrying a "tin cup" around the world for the Palestinians. Controversy has dogged this new position at every stage. It took some diplomatic arm-twisting by the West to persuade Russia to accept Blair. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister of Germany, then let his unhappiness be known at the way Blair was appointed without, what he saw, as adequate debate within the Quartet. And there were private rumblings from Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy supremo, at an appointment that might impact on his job. Downing Street sources said Gordon Brown was angry at the lack of consultation. (Source: Telegraph