London The Bush administration and its partners in the foundering Middle East peace process will take a chance that the earnestness, eloquence, energy and international prestige of British Prime Minister Tony Blair can bridge the widening gap between Israel and the Palestinians.
Today, his last day as prime minister, Blair is expected to be named special envoy for the so-called Quartet - the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia - that has been trying to push the peace process forward.
At the strong urging of the U.S., the other members of the Quartet agreed to offer the job to Blair during a meeting Tuesday in Jerusalem. Although Blair's precise brief has not yet been spelled out, it is expected to focus on Palestinian political and economic reform.
According to British media reports, the EU and the Russians were not enthusiastic about Blair's appointment but decided not to block it.
The Israeli government was quick to signal its approval. Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke by phone Tuesday evening, and according to a statement released by Olmert's office, the Israeli leader told Blair that he is "a true friend of the state of Israel and added that if he accepts the position, Israel would cooperate with him to the fullest."
Spokesmen for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement also expressed support for Blair and hope that his appointment would revive the peace process.
Blair has long expressed a desire to make a mark on the peace process. He has publicly and privately urged President Bush to devote more energy to the problem even as he agreed to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In his final speech to the Labor Party conference last September, he pledged to dedicate his remaining months in office to "advancing peace between Israel and Palestinians."
But whether Blair's new employers will give him the tools he needs to make a difference remains unclear. A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that Blair's assignment will deal primarily with helping the Palestinian Authority build political institutions and will not involve direct mediation or negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis.
"The job is not just about economics, but it should not be mistaken as a mediator or negotiator," the official said.