Upon learning that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair would become a new envoy intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a former senior Israeli intelligence official confided to an old colleague a two-word comment in English: “It’s nuts.” One can only imagine what the Palestinians said in private.

Rarely in recent history have a man and an assignment matched up as poorly as this one: an officious and deceitful Brit who collaborated on a disastrous scheme to invade an Arab country and who is blamed for the deaths of possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, now intervenes in another Arab land to get the Palestinians to shape up.

At least, the Palestinians and Israelis have been assured, Blair won’t be in charge of negotiating a peace settlement. That daunting assignment will be left to President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, two other widely despised figures in the Middle East.

Blair’s duties will be limited to shoring up Palestinian institutions, funneling international assistance to embattled Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and promoting Palestinian economic development, Bush administration officials have said.

Still, one has to wonder who comes up with these ideas. Is this envoy assignment just the latest Bush-Blair vanity play in the Middle East, treating a strategically vital region as a toy for their egos and a source of patronage plums for their cronies? Or are Bush and Blair really so self-absorbed that they think they’re the right guys for these sensitive jobs?

The notion that the detested Blair can help bail out Abbas is a risky gamble, too. Already, Abbas’s Fatah organization is viewed by many Palestinians as a corrupt tool of the West, an assessment that led to Fatah’s defeat at the polls in 2006 and to its military rout by Hamas in Gaza over the past month.

Now, Blair and Bush are endangering what little political credibility Abbas has left by embracing him and using Western money to bolster him, a strategy that could backfire and drive more Palestinians into the Hamas camp.

Though more extreme politically, Hamas is regarded by many Palestinians both as less corrupt than Fatah and less accommodating to Israel and Western powers. Fairly or not, many Arabs view Israel as a vestige of Western colonial rule and a reminder of the longstanding economic plunder of their lands.

Even before the Iraq War, the British were among the most hated Westerners because of their direct hand in administering Arab lands and manipulating local politics. With his unctuous style, Tony Blair has come to personify much of what infuriates the Arabs about the West.

As the new envoy, Blair is sure to blend his delivery of economic assistance to Fatah with his trademark lectures against Islamic extremism. As much blood as he has on his own hands, he will feel compelled to issue righteous denunciations of terrorism, guaranteeing more fury – and likely more radicalism – among Muslims sickened by Western hypocrisy.

Wedge Politics

The new Bush-Blair strategy on Palestine envisions driving a wedge between the two Palestinian factions. Western aid will pour into the West Bank, where Fatah still rules, while the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and its one million residents will be squeezed into submission through collective punishment.

The goal is to isolate – and possibly destroy – Hamas and force the Palestinian people to line up behind Fatah.

Beyond the human costs, the danger of this Bush-Blair strategy is that it will confirm suspicions that Abbas and other Fatah leaders are bought-and-paid-for traitors to the Palestinian cause. That, in turn, could stoke more Islamic extremism, not tamp it down.

An alternative strategy would have been to promote Palestinian unity, even if that meant tolerating the democratically chosen Hamas leaders, as a prerequisite for improving the desperate lot of the Palestinians and paving the way for compromise on all sides. But that is never the way of Bush or Blair when it comes to dealing with Arabs.

The Blair appointment also has caused division within the so-called Quartet – the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia – the group supposedly spearheading negotiations to resolve the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Russian officials reportedly opposed Blair’s selection and some EU officials felt blindsided by the quick decision, giving Blair a new high-profile portfolio the day after he stepped down as British prime minister.

Blair’s new assignment in the Middle East also comes as he formally converts to Catholicism after three decades of living as a closet Catholic, according to British press reports. Though Blair played down his strong religious feelings while in office, he now is acknowledging his intense Christianity.

Given the painful history between Islam and Catholicism dating back more than 1,000 years to the Crusades, Blair’s religious decision could prove problematic as well. Some international political observers believe that Christian zealotry may help explain the readiness of both Bush and Blair to intervene militarily in Muslim nations despite the heavy loss of civilian lives.

Shortly after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, Bush dubbed his planned counter-strikes in the Muslim world a new “crusade,” a characterization that played poorly in the region.

As despair in the Middle East continues to spread, few observers expect that the Bush-Blair team, which has provoked so much animosity over Iraq, will do much to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The smart betting is that they will just make matters worse.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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