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Blair aims to get Bush to focus on Mideast

British Prime Minister Tony Blair will seek this week to use his support for President Bush in Iraq as a lever for greater American commitment to the quest for peace in the Middle East.
/ Source: Reuters

British Prime Minister Tony Blair will seek this week to use his support for President Bush in Iraq as a lever for greater U.S. commitment to the quest for peace in the Middle East.

The first world leader to meet Bush since his re-election last week, Blair will be eager to show dissenters at home and across Europe that his often unpopular support for the American leader can pay dividends, commentators said.

In a speech congratulating Bush on his election victory last week, Blair stressed that revitalizing Middle East peacemaking was “the single most pressing political challenge in our world today.”

A spokesman for Blair’s Downing Street office said the two leaders’ talks, scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Washington, would focus on the agenda set out in that speech.

The spokesman declined comment on a Sunday Times newspaper report that Blair would try to secure Bush’s backing for a special conference of key Israeli and Palestinian figures in London in the new year.

Bush’s father George H.W. Bush, president for four years ending in January 1993, said on Sunday that Blair’s message had been received “loud and clear” across the Atlantic.

“Blair is correct, 100 percent correct. And I think he will find the president a willing and able partner,” the former president told the British Broadcasting Corp. “Particularly if there is a change in leadership in the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) that we can deal with more openly and with more confidence.”

Uncertainty about Arafat
Analysts said uncertainty about the future of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is hospitalized and in critical condition, and about the make-up of the new Bush administration, meant Blair would find it hard to make much progress.

“In some ways the time is not a very opportune one,” said Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warwick University.

“Obviously there is a great deal of uncertainty because of Arafat and what might happen if he dies — and there is a lot of uncertainty in the Bush administration with some key posts which have yet to be decided," Grant said.

“If they are not quite clear what they want to do and where they want to go, it’s going to be difficult to make progress," he added.

Blair has risked the wrath of fellow European leaders and sustained a dramatic drop in popularity ratings at home to stand by Bush in Iraq in return for what he insists is a louder voice at Washington’s table when it comes to the Middle East.

But although Bush has publicly backed a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel and an international peace plan known as the “road map,” critics say there has been little concrete evidence of any peace efforts.

Grant cast doubt on Blair’s power in Washington.

“There are quite clearly limits to his influence,” he said.

“There is some gratitude in Washington (for Blair’s Iraq support), but obviously Britain is a junior partner in this relationship and there is only so far the Americans will go in being deflected from their intentions and purpose," Grant said.