Blair seeks payback from focus on foreign affairs

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tony Blair is often described by close aides as an irrepressible optimist. When it comes to the Middle East peace process, he has certainly needed the sunny optimism he has repeatedly shown when the prospects of progress have looked decidedly gloomy.

Tony Blair is often described by close aides as an irrepressible optimist. When it comes to the Middle East peace process, he has certainly needed the sunny optimism he has repeatedly shown when the prospects of progress have looked decidedly gloomy.

Friday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv has not dented Mr Blair's hopes that the prospects are the best since President Bush took office. The death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians' new moderate leadership, the new coalition in Israel and the US President's promise to expend his "capital" on the Middle East provide the four crucial building blocks, he believes.

Although Israel's absence puts a limit on what can be achieved, Mr Blair needs to provide some tangible evidence that, as he claimed in Brussels last week, "there's a renewed sense of vigour and optimism in that process". With a general election little over two months away, the Prime Minister hopes momentum on the Middle East, however slow, will convince voters who opposed his stance on Iraq that his "shoulder to shoulder" support for President Bush is not a one-way street. As one EU diplomat put it: "Blair has got nothing back for Iraq."

Even many voters who did not oppose the Iraq war believe Mr Blair has spent too much time on foreign affairs. His election campaign is designed to convince them he has not forgotten day-to-day concerns. Movement on the Middle East might convince some his focus on foreign matters was worthwhile.

Mr Blair plays down the idea of a "quid pro quo" on Iraq and the Middle East. "It's about creating a virtuous circle including both," said one adviser. But with many voters sceptical about his ability to influence Washington, his aides are naturally happy for him to take some of the credit for President Bush's decision to start spending some "capital". He probably deserves it.

The Prime Minister has urged the President that the US must tackle the causes of global terrorism as well as the terrorism itself. What better cause than the Palestinian question? He is convinced that Bush Mark II is a different animal to the one who, in his first term, did not turn his Middle East rhetoric into reality.

British officials say there was "real follow-through from the Bush team" after Mr Blair visited the US in November. "Sometimes in the past we had words but no follow-up. It was different this time," one said.

A Blair aide said: "Bush was never against having a go in the Middle East in principle; he was against failing. He felt he only had one shot at it." Privately, British ministers are delighted with the pro-active role being played by Condoleezza Rice, reflecting the administration's new commitment. "Colin Powell was a big figure but he didn't really do that much on the Middle East," said one source. "He was reluctant to get on a plane, and spent most of his time watching his back." Ministers also know that Ms Rice speaks for the Bush administration as a whole because of her closeness to the President. "She is bringing more traction and leverage to the process," said one British source.

However, Mr Blair has had his fingers burnt by Washington on the Middle East before. He will have to keep up the pressure on the White House to stay the course, especially when the inevitable setbacks happen.

It is much too soon to talk about both President Bush and Mr Blair celebrating a legacy of peace in the Middle East when they complete their final terms.

Mr Blair knows the prospects will be determined by events, many of which are outside his control. He senses the tide is finally turning in his favour. "For four years, events have worked against us; now they seem to be working for us," one close aide said. But he will need all his optimism in the months ahead.

Comments