Blair makes presence felt in the Middle East

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair flies back to London today after making himself - with unexpected rapidity - part of the furniture of the official Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

With a packed programme, the new international Middle East envoy has met almost everyone who matters in the Israeli political and military establishment, the UN - whose officials have been showing him round parts of the West Bank - and the emergency government set up under the premiership of Salam Fayad by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in Ramallah nearly three months ago.

For a man often accused of media obsession, he has been remarkably silent, giving no formal interviews. But the diplomats and others he has met have come away convinced by his enthusiasm. He has told some that one of the toughest aspects of ten years at the top was not being able to focus on a single issue, as he can now.

In ten days' time he will fly to New York to give an outline of his initial thinking to the "Quartet" of the US, EU, Russia and the UN ahead of the planned international conference in the US in November.

Diplomats say he has been tactful about not being seen to usurp the responsibility of others - including the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - for oversight of the tortuous negotiating process between Mr Abbas and Mr Olmert on a possible declaration of "principles" of a final peace settlement. But in practice it is proving impossible to separate that process from the two explicit issues in his mandate - helping to lay the foundations of a modern, democratic Palestinian state, and improving a Palestinian economy hobbled by closures in the West Bank and Gaza. Nor does he seem under pressure to do so.

While convinced that Mr Abbas needs a clear "political horizon", Mr Blair is said to accept Israel's position that it will not move to concrete final status negotiations until it is confident that such a state is coherent enough not to pose a threat to Israel's security.

In his view therefore a programme of Palestinian "capacity building"; the measures Mr Abbas needs to ease the restrictions on Palestinian economy - and boost it in areas like the Jordan valley, which Mr Blair toured this week; and the central diplomatic process, are all interdependent.

Part of this conviction stems from his experience in Northern Ireland, where he faced continuous objections from the Army to "demilitarisation" plans. But when the Army saw their objections might be blamed for holding back a political process, they were more reluctant to press them.

Whether this will diminish the Israeli military's reluctance to lift closures remains to be seen. Nor is it certain that such a process will emerge from the November conference.

Egypt has been expressing doubts about whether US preparations for the conference are adequate. And Saudi Arabia, arguably an essential player, has been threatening not to go unless there is something truly substantive to discuss.

But Mr Blair has been giving the impression that he strongly believes that is achievable, not least because Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas - each under acute domestic pressure - have nothing to lose by agreeing a joint declaration and showing a willingness to reach a final deal.

For the Palestinians, he has been arguing, it would be the first demonstration after seven years of armed conflict that Israel is willing to make peace. And when the US, Israel and increasingly the Arab world is preoccupied with Iran, it would be a grave mistake to leave the Israeli-Palestinian issue to fester.

This leaves an elephant in the living room: a Gaza controlled by a Hamas that is currently excluded by the process, and capable of doing it significant damage. On this, Mr Blair has kept his counsel. He appears to have little intention of talking to Hamas at this stage. Nor has he yet been to Gaza - though he has met some of its civil society and municipal leaders.

But there are tentative signs that he thinks that if the current process succeeds - injecting a long absent optimism into the Palestinian psyche - there might be something to talk about to a Hamas which would then be in a different, and perhaps more constraining, climate.

It could all yet go terribly wrong. But if nothing else, those who have met him on his trip are convinced his determination and urgency are no less than they were in Northern Ireland.

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