JERUSALEM – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday kicked off his first visit to the Middle East as the international community's new envoy to the region, hoping to add new momentum to fledgling peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.
The newly appointed envoy for the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the United States, European Union, U.N. and Russia — arrived in Israel for his first visit in the new post. During the two-day visit, Blair planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other top officials.
Blair arrives at a promising time. The Palestinian uprising has fizzled and Israel says it's ready to work with the new Palestinian leadership after seven years of stalemate.
But limits on Blair's responsibilities — he has no authority to negotiate a final peace deal — have already raised questions about his ability to forge a breakthrough, and Israeli and Palestinian officials played down expectations for the visit.
Blair touched down in Tel Aviv in a white, unmarked private jet and immediate exited Ben Gurion International Airport in a heavily guarded motorcade through the "Gate of Shalom" terminal.
He traveled to the upscale King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where he was met by a horde of photographers. Blair made no comment as he pushed through the crowd into an elevator.
Blair arrived from neighboring Jordan, where he met with Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib. Jordanian officials said Blair listened to Jordan's perspective on restarting the Mideast peace process. Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab countries that have made peace with Israel.
The visit comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
President Bush called last week for an international peace conference on the Middle East in the autumn. On Wednesday, the Jordanian foreign minister and his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, are due in Israel to formally present an Arab peace initiative that envisions full Arab recognition of Israel in return for lands the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have welcomed the involvement of Blair, who brings a high-profile and well-respected figure to Mideast diplomacy. He is known for his powers of persuasion and track record in forging Northern Ireland's peace accord.
But in his new job, Blair has been given a relatively limited assignment: to prepare the ground for a Palestinian state by encouraging reform, economic development and institution-building.
There is no mention of trying to help broker a final peace deal, a role the United States appears reluctant to cede. Such constraints could quickly turn Blair into the latest of a long succession of well-meaning, yet ultimately ineffective mediators.
Ahead of the visit, Israeli and Palestinian officials acknowledged Blair's limitations and said a final peace deal could only come through direct talks.
"What I do with the Israelis, what the Israelis do with me, is the main ingredient," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "The decisions required for peace are not going to come from the envoys."
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media, said expectations were low for Blair's first visit. They said the talks would be introductory, and they did not expect major pressure from him.
A word of caution also came from James Wolfensohn, Blair's predecessor as envoy of the diplomatic Quartet.
In 2005, Wolfensohn, a former World Bank president, was asked to oversee the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip after Israel's pullout from the area.
Wolfensohn accomplished less than he hoped and saw the last of his achievements — creating a gateway to the world for fenced-in Gazans — unravel after the Islamic militant Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza last month.
Wolfensohn told the Israeli daily Haaretz that while he made some mistakes, his main problem was lack of authority.
The U.S. dominates the Quartet, he noted. "There was never a desire on the part of the Americans to give up control of the (peace) negotiations," Haaretz quoted him as saying.
Even in his limited role, Blair will have to confine his work to the West Bank, since the international community continues to shun Hamas, now in control of Gaza. Following the Hamas takeover, Abbas formed a new moderate government in the West Bank.
Chances of transforming the West Bank are perhaps better than any time since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, following failed peace talks.
The violence, which left nearly 4,400 Palestinians and more than 1,100 Israelis dead, blocked any progress in peacemaking, but the uprising has run out of steam.
Hamas, responsible for scores of deadly attacks, is largely contained behind Gaza's border fences and on the defensive in the West Bank, while scores of gunmen from Abbas' Fatah movement have surrendered their weapons in exchange for an Israeli amnesty.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Blair could not ignore Hamas, which swept Palestinian parliamentary elections last year. "It will lead to nothing but failure," he said.
Abbas' government is eager to resume negotiations on a final peace deal, but Israel says it's too soon. Israel is willing to talk about general outlines of an agreement, but argues that negotiations can only begin once Abbas has disarmed militants and restored order in areas under his control.