WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is sending a senior State Department official to run the Mideast office of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as part of new efforts to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, The Associated Press has learned.
Robert Danin, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, will take up his post next week as "head of mission" for Blair, the special envoy to the Palestinians for the international diplomatic quartet on the Middle East, U.S. officials told the AP. They spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a public announcement.
The appointment was disclosed in an internal memo sent to State Department staff on Tuesday as the embattled Abbas arrived in Washington for talks with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Danin "will lead the Blair mission's effort on the ground to support the Palestinian Authority in improving the livelihood of its people in the West Bank and Gaza," said the memo from David Welch, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East. Portions of the memo were read to the AP by an official who received it.
Danin met late Monday with Blair who was in Washington to accept an award, officials said. He succeeds Donald Bandler, a low-key, retired U.S. diplomat who held the job on an interim basis for less than a year.
The move comes as the administration intensifies efforts to revitalize the shattered Palestinian economy and shore up Abbas, who is struggling for authority in the West Bank against the militant Hamas movement that controls Gaza, and as the administration is still hoping for some sort of peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel before Bush leaves office.
Bush will see Abbas on Thursday, a day after he has a private breakfast with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Those meetings will set the stage for a flurry of high-profile Middle East events in the coming weeks centered around Bush's planned trip to the region in mid-May, which is expected to include stops in Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The administration is holding out hope it can arrange a peace summit during the visit, perhaps at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik where Bush is now currently set to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But there are deep misgivings about such a meeting among both Arabs and the Israelis given the slow pace of negotiations, and prospects for the summit remain unclear, officials said.
Before Bush's trip, Rice is expected to travel to Israel and the West Bank after attending a Palestinian donors' conference that Blair will host in London on May 2. After the Bush trip, Blair will convene an international investment conference for the Palestinians in Bethlehem.