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Blair set to clinch job as world's man in the Middle East

London Times | June 26, 2007
Tom Baldwin, Greg Hurst and Philip Webster

Tony Blair's nomination for the post of international envoy in the Middle East is likely to be confirmed as early as today despite grumbles from Europe and last-minute wrangles over his job description.

Sources in London and Washington indicated yesterday that the announcement will be made if agreement is reached between the so-called “Quartet” of powers – America, Europe, Russia and the United Nations – which oversee the Middle East peace process.

Mr Blair's nomination has been pushed by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, and – to a lesser extent – the White House, in behind-the-scenes negotiations over recent months.

The prospects of Mr Blair being confirmed in a new post before he leaves Downing Street tomorrow have hardened in recent days. Yesterday his farewell continued with his last Commons statement, reporting on the EU Brussels summit, and his final appearance as Prime Minister before the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Last week British diplomats expressed irritation over some apparently premature leaks from the State Department about the likelihood of Mr Blair taking up the envoy job.

At the same time, a close ally pointed out that he was reluctant to do it unless there was a real prospect of a “political process” in peace talks which would give him the opportunity to use his “mediation skills set”.

The Quartet's previous envoy, James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank, focused largely on economic issues in Gaza and resigned in frustration last year.

But Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, has emphasised that Mr Blair's “job description” would be an expansion of the “very discrete, circumscribed way” in which Mr Wolfensohn had been forced to operate.

He said that in the envoy's role of building up the institutions of a future Palestinian state, it “would also be important to help the Palestinians build up political institutions”.

Mr Blair is understood to be keen to take on the role this year after a summer break because he views finding a solution to the Middle East crisis as central to tackling global ex-tremism. It would also offer him a second chance with many Muslims in the region who loathe him as ally-in-chief to President Bush over the war in Iraq. Speculation that Jona-than Powell, currently Downing Street's chief of staff, could accompany him in the new position was yesterday discounted by sources in No 10.

Although Russian and EU leaders are unlikely to block Mr Blair's appointment, they view him as a tainted figure for having led Britain into the Iraq war, as well as failing to call for a ceasefire in Israel's conflict in Lebanon last year.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, is said to be particularly sceptical about Mr Blair's appointment, while Kofi An-nan, the former UN Secretary-General, is known to have fa-voured Joschka Fischer, the ex-German Foreign Minister, for the job as Middle East envoy.

According to Berlin, the German Government was not informed about the sensitive appointment, even though Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Foreign Minister, represents the EU in the Quartet.

“I cannot imagine how Blair, as one of the main protagonists of the Iraq war, wants to gain confidence in the Middle East,” said Martin Schulz, chairman of the Social Democratic group in the European Parliament.

In the Commons yesterday, Mr Blair claimed that he had helped Britain to return to a leadership role in Europe.

Dismissing calls by the Conservatives and some prominent Labour backbenchers for a referendum on the new treaty, Mr Blair hailed a success for his attempts to reengage with Europe after the confrontation-al tone of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Later, in exchanges with MPs, Mr Blair tried to embarrass Mr Cameron by making an unusual plea to the Tories to abandon their sceptical position on Europe, calling it a “virus” infecting the party.



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