The Times (Analysis)
March 3, 2009 - 1:00am

Hillary Clinton answered the question yesterday of who in the West is driving policy on the Middle East. She began her first visit to the region as Secretary of State with the most intractable issue: what to do about Gaza. At a pledging conference in Sharm el-Sheikh she joined dozens of others promising Gaza substantial cash to rebuild houses and infrastructure destroyed by three weeks of Israeli air attacks.

The issue, however, is not money. With Europe and the Gulf states also pledging generously, a total of $3 billion was raised swiftly - more than the sum requested. The issue is whether the money will bring peace any nearer. America and its partners insisted that none would go to Hamas, which controls Gaza. They were less clear, however, about how the money would be spent. With Israel blocking deliveries of steel and cement - on the ground that they could be used for making weapons - little can be done to repair the ruins. And with Hamas still failing to halt all rockets being fired across the border and refusing to acknowledge Israel's existence, there is no guarantee that any buildings reconstructed would not be hit again by Israeli jets.

Mrs Clinton is not alone is seeking ways through the stalemate. George Mitchell, the newly appointed US special envoy, preceded her to Israel and the West Bank and has been speaking to both sides to assess options for restarting peace talks. Palestinian factions have begun talks to form a unity government that could include Hamas, in hopes of breaking the cycle of rejection and resistance that has caused the suffering of so many in Gaza. Israeli politicians, in the throes of bargaining to see whether a stable coalition can be formed from the inconclusive election, have yet to present any fresh proposals.

There is one political figure in the region who would welcome a say: Tony Blair. For the past 18 months the former Prime Minister has been shuttling round the Middle East as an envoy of the Quartet. His appointment was controversial, seen by critics as a favour to help him to overcome his legacy on Iraq. His role has been no less controversial. Meant only to advise on economic development on the West Bank, he has won the trust neither of the Israelis, who were determined to stop his speaking out on broader issues, nor of the Palestinians, who resent what they see as his less than full-time engagement. It says much about the semi-detached way in which Mr Blair has approached the job that he waited a year and a half before making his first visit to Gaza.

His mission is not cheap. He maintains a staff of around a dozen, has taken over a floor at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem and runs up a monthly bill running into the millions. He rarely spends more than a week a month in the region, and has yet to give the Quartet any visible signs of political or economic progress. Israeli checkpoints remain all across the West Bank. The expansion of Jewish settlements continues (and yesterday Peace Now, the anti-settlement lobby, reported plans to construct at least 73,000 more housing units on the West Bank). And repeated assurances that a peace deal was possible before the end of 2008 have come to nothing.

It is not entirely Mr Blair's fault. His mandate was mistaken. There has never been much room for intermediaries, and with Washington now re-engaged and both Mrs Clinton and Mr Mitchell in the field, his role is superfluous. There are plenty of jobs that sorely need a man of his talents. Mr Blair has political prospects in Europe, personal ones in the faith area and practical ones in the realm of development. But he has been an occasional peacemaker with a compromised patron. There are now new people with political capital and personal energy to commit to this urgent task. Mr Blair should step aside.


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