New Quartet envoy Tony Blair began his first mission to the region today with a series of meetings on the Israeli side to be followed by a visit Ramallah. I am not lending my voice to those who are dismissive of his mission and claim that he is a discredited actor in the region who can do no good.
Having made his mark in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, Blair is an astute politician who still carries weight on the world stage and has the ear of Washington. That does not mean that success is guaranteed -- far from it --, but it does suggest that Blair should be given a chance.
First, let me clarify something: contrary to a series of press reports I will not be serving as an adviser on Blair's team. Even when I clarified to the Sunday Telegraph that there had been no conversations about any formal role, they continued with the rumor. That Telegraph interview is also inaccurate in quoting me as saying that Blair would fail if he did not talk to Hamas. My argument is that the policy of isolating and excluding Hamas cannot work. The important thing is to open meaningful channels of dialogue to Hamas. Whether that is initiated by Blair or others is secondary. In fact, it would be unlikely (and understandably so) for Blair to take the lead role in this respect.
I also do not buy the line that the new envoy Blair will immediately look for ways to break out of his narrow and restrictive mandate. The Washington Times ran a story claiming that Secretary Rice and Envoy Blair are already at loggerheads regarding the exact definition of his role. Blair and Rice have been known to cooperate well and if the new envoy is to segway into a new, more political role (as I presume he will) this would most likely be a gradual process. So expect mandate expansion by stealth, not frontal confrontation.
The Northern Ireland analogy provides some guidance, although it can be taken too far. In leading the Northern Ireland process as Prime Minister, Blair displayed patience, an appreciation of timing, political understanding, the deployment of external actors, and an ability to build an inclusive process that ultimately had the buy-in of the hardline actors on both the Unionist and Republican sides.
The Middle East, though, is not Northern Ireland. The parties do not speak the same language and the political cultures are different. In these respects, the initial Blair effort will likely have to include a lot of listening. Ultimately, the determinant of success will be whether the envoy can chart a meaningful way forward, and then convince the US to work with him in advancing it. That would take time, so early predictions are best avoided.