Giving Blair a Big Bear Hug

In anticipation of Tony Blair's visit in his new role as Quartet envoy, the Prime Minister's Bureau has decided to adopt a "bear-hug policy." From Israel's point of view, Blair's mission is a great opportunity. There are few with his standing, connections and experience in the world. Even if the dominant view, that Blair will exceed his limited mandate and seek to negotiate a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, is true, there are few people losing sleep about this in Jerusalem. If anyone is going to mediate, it might as well be Blair and not someone who is less of a friend. The possible alternatives, such as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or the European Union's Javier Solana, are not as promising.

Olmert will seek to use Blair's talents to disseminate the following message: that Israel wants an agreement with the Palestinians, that it does not want to hold on to the territories, and that it is honestly interested in bolstering Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Blair can also serve as a useful conduit with the Saudis and others in the Arab world.

Blair's personal standing stems mostly from his close ties with U.S. President George W. Bush. More than any other world leader, Blair offered support to Bush before and after the war in Iraq. Bush owes him, and this is recognized in the Middle East, and he is treated with respect here. If he faces difficulties, he will not hesitate to complain to the White House.

But being an experienced politician, who governed the U.K. for a decade and won three consecutive elections, Blair knows that he must start in low gear. He must keep a low profile with the media, and listen to his hosts, and explain that he is busy building institutions of governance that will help the Palestinians. He seems to be aware of local sensitivities, and recognizes that he has significant gaps in knowledge -- so he will not rush into discussions on Jerusalem and the refugee question tomorrow.

Blair's mission will officially begin during his next visit, in mid-September, at which point a regional summit will be held. At that meeting, he will present Israel and the Palestinians his intentions and plans in greater detail.

Among the possible disagreements with Israel, Blair believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of enormous international problems, and he also believes it can be resolved. He believes that the parties already know the solution and that all that is necessary is a good mediator. In Israel, the view is that things are a lot more complex, but they are willing to listen.