Everyone Wants a Piece of Tony

Will Tony Blair stick to his limited appointment to develop Palestinian institutions, or is he aiming for higher goals - peace, and maybe a Nobel Prize?

"He is smart, intelligent, not full of himself and has extraordinary personal charm. He knows how to listen and is not at all officious."

"He is first and foremost an extraordinarily nice person."

"A leader of world caliber, talented, charming and intelligent. Basically, a friend of Israel."

"Inquisitive, mainly wants to listen, a serious chap who is well-liked in the world, the best man for the job."

These are some of the enthusiastic compliments with which Israeli politicians who met with him, showered Tony Blair, the new Middle East Quartet envoy to the region. His two-day visit to Jerusalem seemed like the TV ad of two women fighting over the a Milky pudding: the most senior politicians vied with each other just to get some time in the former British prime minister's crowded schedule, in spite of which he even managed to include a short visit to Ramallah. After a decade in power, Blair may have lost popularity among the British, but he has numerous admirers in Israel.

Blair's visit left no doubt about it - an international rock star is now dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. None of the previous personalities or emissaries enjoyed a similar standing, or the prestige and political savoir faire Blair has brought with him to the position. Even the likes of Terje Roed-Larsen, Dennis Ross or James Wolfensohn can't be compared to him.

The major question that accompanied Blair's meetings with Israel's top political echelon concerned his intentions. Will he stick to the limited mandate he has been given by the Quartet to further the building of Palestinian governmental institutions and to prepare them for independence; or will he be pushed into genuine mediation between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and Salem Fayad, on the way to a final-status solution - and perhaps also the Nobel Peace prize?

The answer seemed somewhat vague, even after the marathon meetings Blair held with Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Benjamin Netanyahu. One of them left the meetings with the impression that Blair would like to mediate a diplomatic agreement over the West Bank. Another said Blair had told him he would not exceed the mandate he had been given. A third understood that Blair would not deal with those fields in which others are already involved, first and foremost the Americans. Blair appears to be very sensitive to the position of other mediators, advisers and envoys who come here, such as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Blair knows this constitutes an issue. Rice's undersecretary of state for public affairs, Karen Hughes, who is very close to President George W. Bush, visited Jerusalem after Blair. "Tony will deal with the economic side," she said during one of her meetings.

Nevertheless, and with all due respect to both this warning and diplomatic manners, there is no doubt that Blair did not leave 10 Downing Street and his place in the front row of world leaders only to take care of repairing Ramallah's sewage system or appointing a Palestinian state comptroller. The man who has repeatedly declared that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of the problems between Islam and the West, and that this dispute can only be solved if a suitable mediator is found, will try his luck at concocting an agreement. People who met with him before he set off on his mission had the impression that he would take his time, get to know those involved, study the subject in depth, and win the support of both sides before jumping in to swim where many have drowned before him.

Olmert instructed the Israeli side to adopt a "hug-him policy," intended to turn Blair into an asset and an envoy who will assist Israel. To this end, they are even prepared to accept a certain slight deviation on the part of Blair toward the Arab side, which will add to his credibility. But the job being designed for him, according to one senior official in Jerusalem, is that of a "strategic adviser." "He will come here, put pressure on us, maintain a high profile for the issue and allow us to transfer messages and activate him vis-a-vis the Arab states," the source said.

One bomb could destroy it all

The only concern about Blair that could be heard in Jerusalem had to do with the possibility that he might want to broaden the circle of partners to the negotiations. When he refers to his success in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, Israeli ears hear IRA and translate this into Hamas. Olmert bases his policy regarding the Palestinians on the isolation of Hamas, and has so far met with international understanding and support. He would not be keen for Blair to ruin this approach. It was therefore no coincidence that Olmert's bureau publicized the warning against allowing Hamas to join the negotiations during the meeting with Blair.

And what did Blair hear from his hosts? Olmert tried to persuade him that he intends to move forward to an agreement but warned that one suicide bomb could prove more powerful than both sides and destroy everything. Livni told him that if he were to assist in strengthening the Palestinians' capabilities of performance, he would be able to bridge the gap between the "diplomatic horizon" and the reality on the ground. Peres spoke of the economic vision, in which Jordan also plays a part, as a track that would make it possible to move forward quickly. Ramon presented his own assessment. Blair listened to all of them, left for a Caribbean vacation, and will return to Jerusalem in September with proposals for action - centered around the international meeting Bush has announced in order to jump-start the peace process.

Political Viagra

Bush's speech last week and the anticipated delay in publication of the Winograd Committee's final report have had the effect of political Viagra on Olmert. The prime minister rushed to take the initiative and declared that in the next elections he would once again head Kadima and would beat Ehud Barak ("a good defense minister") and Benjamin Netanyahu ("a confidant to the most confidential matters"). It was the first time since the Second Lebanon War that Olmert has made any public statment about his political future. His aides say "it was always clear" that he would run for another term of office. If that is the case, it was a secret to the public.

The issue of the next race for the premiership has been discussed extensively among the members of the "Balfour Forum" that deals with Olmert's political and public conduct. The forum, whose members include advisers both from inside and outside the Prime Minister's Bureau, is named after the Jerusalem street where the prime minister's official residence is located. They have been telling Olmert for a long time now that if he plans to run for office again, he must make his intentions known publicly so he will have a camp of supporters. Kadima also needs encouragement in the face of the wave of analyses and surveys concerning its disappearance and its merging with the Labor Party in the next elections.

If you are not there and you do not take to the field, no one will include you, Olmert's political advisers warned him. Look at the public opinion polls: Netanyahu and Barak are there, and you do not exist. The actual declaration that you are entering the fray will not cause your popularity to soar, but if you continue to remain silent, all the other candidates in Kadima will grab center stage - Livni, and Shaul Mofaz and Meir Sheetrit. If you announce that you are running, everyone will know you are alive and kicking. They reminded Olmert of Sharon's repeated declarations that he intended to remain in office until 2010 and then "to go and ride the horses on the farm." The prime minister was convinced and went out once again to fight for his future.

Barak's doubts

Has he changed, or has he not? New or old? Ehud Barak has learned from Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to ask people how they are doing and to slap party activists on the back. It was good for the campaign. But people who have heard him speak recently have the impression that the defense minister's worldview has not changed from the years when he was chief of staff and prime minister.

Even through his new political lenses, Barak still sees Israel as a "villa in the jungle," as a vanguard of the West in the heart of the gloomy Middle East that is torn with intra-Muslim wars between Shi'ites and Sunnis. His instructor is the great British historian Arnold Toynbee, who compared Muslim zealots with the Jewish Zealots during the time of the Romans, and who predicted many years ago that America would end up fighting the Muslim Wahhabism as the Romans had dealt with Bar-Kochba.

Barak would like to position himself as a representative of the Israeli mainstream, which rejects the messianism of the right as well as the illusions of the left. That is the ideological basis from which he has come in his renewed attempt at the premiership. The national challenge, in his eyes, is to maintain internal unity while keeping to the moral values accepted in the West. Upholding Israel's moral image -- which is essential for its integration in the West -- apparently worries him more than the demographic problem. Since assuming his present position, Barak has twice asked the head of the Military Prosecution's international law department, Colonel Pnina Sharvit, to brief him on the legal situation in the territories. His predecessor, Amir Peretz, did not meet with her even once.

Like Sharon, Barak never believed that the Arabs would accept a Jewish and democratic state in the heart of the Middle East. The visions of regional cooperation, Peres' irrigation and development, have always seemed illusionary to him, and they still do. His Weltanschauung is pessimistic: Time is working against Israel. He understood this years ago and now most of the public has grasped it as well. In the Middle East, those who are weak do not get a second chance. Therefore, Israel has to broadcast strength and remain the strongest country within a radius of 1,500 km.

Barak believes that Fatah and Hamas share the same dreams when it comes to Israel and that they disagree merely over the means. If there is a comprehensive conflagration, they will join the forces against Israel. After all, these are two parts of the same national movement. Barak views Hamas as a band of murderers with whom there is no point in talking. Any move in their direction will merely serve them in their struggle to annihilate Israel. While Hamas cannot be destroyed, it is nonetheless important to prevent the two Palestinian camps from reuniting.

A seasoned analyst who knows both Barak and the regional scene well, noticed that the defense minister is attempting to wage a war of nerves with Hamas. The new rulers in Gaza responded to his appointment with a barrage of Qassam rockets, to which he, in turn, responded by sending ground forces to operate deep inside their territory. Hamas then reduced the dosage of the rockets and even began to rein in Islamic Jihad. It is difficult to know what will happen in the future. What is clear is that the new Barak, just like the old Barak, will look for the spot that will hurt Hamas most.