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Lame Duck Tony Blair Might Look to Leave His Mark on the Middle East

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The historic third term won by Britain’s Labor party may have implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was returned to power in the May 6 general elections, long has pledged that helping to bring Israeli and Palestinians closer to an agreement is one of his personal priorities.

Labor’s manifesto highlights Mideast peace as a priority for Blair’s third term, describing a resolution of the conflict as “crucial to peace in the region and the world.”

Danny Shek, chief executive of Bicom, a British Israeli advocacy group, says Blair’s re-election comes at a key time in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“There is a crucial moment coming up,” he says.

As the Israelis prepare to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip this August, it’s still not clear if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be able to restrain terrorist groups and maintain a tenuous cease-fire.

International involvement — whether economic aid for the Gaza evacuation or diplomatic support for Israel as it struggles with a traumatic process — will be needed in coming months.

The United Kingdom is set to take a prominent position on global affairs as this decisive period begins. Blair will host the G8 summit of world leaders in July in Scotland. Later that month, Britain will take over the European Union’s rotating presidency, holding it until January 2006.

“This puts the U.K. in a leadership position at a critical time,” Shek says. “Tony Blair has shown a certain application in his involvement in the Middle East. I suspect that given the chance, he’ll follow up on it.”

“Tony Blair was one of the first voices to support the disengagement plan as a way forward,” said a spokesman for Labor Friends of Israel, a lobbying group, pointing to British initiatives such as the March 1 summit on Palestinian Authority reform that Britain held.

The summit was considered a pet project of Blair’s. Attendees included U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and delegates from many donor countries, who agreed on the need for crucial reforms in P.A. security, politics and governance.

There is another issue that lends further urgency to the prime minister’s personal involvement in the peace process.

Blair, 52, has vowed to step down before Britain goes to the polls again. The next general election is likely to be in four or five years, but it’s widely assumed that he will step down long before then in favor of his chancellor, Gordon Brown.

That change of leadership might not change British policy substantially.

“Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are true friends of the Jewish people and of the Jewish state,” says Lord Greville Janner, a Labor parliamentarian and vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

But Blair is likely to want to consolidate his place in the history books before he leaves office.

Just as U.S. presidents in their second terms have turned their attention to the Middle East, Blair may consider leaving his mark on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Although Blair brought his party back to power after nearly two decades in the political wilderness, controversial issues such as Blair’s support for the Iraq war have tarnished his image, and are believed to have contributed to Labor’s drop in these elections from 161 to 67 seats in Parliament.

Analysts say Blair may turn to foreign policy in a bid to end his term with a success. Tackling the Israel-Palestinian conflict possibly could bring the international community together, compensate for the failures in Iraq and sweeten transatlantic relations soured by the war.

This “might be part of the legacy,” acknowledged the spokesman for the pro-Israel lobby. “There is clearly a possibility, within the context of the G8 and the E.U. presidency, of taking things further.”

Though former President Clinton, Blair’s friend and hero, has been blamed for pressuring Israel and the Palestinians into the disastrous July 2000 Camp David summit — for which neither party was ready — Shek thinks Blair’s approach is more pragmatic.

The Labor leader knows that “it is time to do what is feasible,” Shek says.

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