Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tony Blair hails Barack Obama’s ‘A-team’ for peace

Tony Blair hailed Barack Obama’s foreign policy appointments as the “A-team” yesterday and said that he had received assurances that securing peace in the Middle East would be high on the agenda of the President-elect.

The former Prime Minister toldThe Timesthat he was more optimistic than before that a deal can be struck between Palestinians and Israelis, saying that the role of Mr Obama would be “absolutely critical”.

On his visit to Washington this week Mr Blair – the Middle East envoy for the quartet of America, Russia, Europe and the United Nations – held talks with General James Jones, Mr Obama’s National Security Adviser, Hillary Clinton, who was nominated as Secretary of State, and the President-elect.

Previous administrations, including that of President Bush, with whom Mr Blair dined last night, have addressed the Middle East peace process only in their latter stages. The envoy is enthused however by the prospect of Mr Obama tackling the issue from the day he enters the White House, even as a poll shows that Palestinians have little faith in the new US Administration.

Mr Blair has often indicated that he should have been more ambitious when he took office in 1997. Asked if the President-elect should learn from his experience, he said that Mr Obama was already showing his intent to “govern boldly from the centre” and described his national security appointments as “pretty much the A-team”.

Mrs Clinton “is strong and tough – she knows this issue inside and out”, he said, before lavishing praise on General Jones, who in his role as the State Department’s Mideast security envoy has overseen training of Palestinian police.

As Gordon Brown announced that Britain would host a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian leaders this month, Mr Blair used a speech in Washington to acknowledge the scale of the challenges in the region. The “central impasse” was that the “reality on the ground does not, as yet, sufficiently support the compromises necessary to secure a final, negotiated settlement”. Israelis did not accept that the Palestinians were a credible partner for peace, while “Palestinians don’t believe Israel is sincere in offering statehood,” he said. Yet there were grounds for hope. “Peace between Israel and Palestine would possess defining symbolic power. That is why it matters. That is why it must be done.”

Mr Blair emphasised that a Palestinian state must include Gaza even though it is controlled by Hamas extremists with whom the Quartet will not hold direct talks. “There is no way you can negotiate a two-state solution with a party that does not accept one of the states,” he said.

A poll published yesterday showed that 57.5 per cent of Palestinians do not believe that the election of Mr Obama will have any impact on the conflict.

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