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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Becomes Middle East Envoy

The international Middle East Quartet has named Britain's Tony Blair as its envoy to prepare the ground for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The members of the Quartet - the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia - announced the appointment hours after Mr. Blair stood down as prime minister Wednesday. President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah welcomed Mr. Blair's appointment.

On Blair's stepping down as Britain’s prime minister, Gerard Baker, U.S. editor and assistant editor of The Times of London, describes the reaction of the British press as mixed. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now's International Press Club, Mr. Baker comments that Mr. Blair is leaving office "on a moderately high note," given the criticism that he has sustained over the war in Iraq. Gerard Baker also points out that Tony Blair was an important force in strengthening the British economy.

Mr. Baker says that, although the former prime minister's decision to support President Bush on Iraq has critically hurt his image with the British people, he should not be blamed for a decision that was done "for the right reasons." Maintaining the alliance with the United States was a good decision, Mr. Baker says, adding it is "those in the United States who have managed to make such a mess" in Iraq who should be criticized.

Matthias Rueb, Washington correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, agrees that Blair has left a "very important legacy." Mr. Rueb says that before the Iraq war, Mr. Blair "was considered to be a hero" by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and was "cheered by the left-wing mainstream media in Germany" for Britain's role in the Kosovo conflict. Mr. Rueb believes that Tony Blair will do well as envoy for the Quartet. "As prime minister,” he says, "he was always trying to bring about peace in the Middle East."

However, not everyone is as confident about Tony Blair's abilities to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Spokesmen for the militant group Hamas say Mr. Blair is not impartial and has often supported American and Israeli interests. George Hishmeh, dean of the Arab press corps in Washington, says that Mr. Blair's refusal "to endorse an immediate ceasefire during the war in Lebanon last year," as well as his support for the Iraq war, is a problem for many in the Middle East.

Even so, Mr. Hishmeh believes that Tony Blair is "obviously interested in improving his legacy," and that he could have a "chance to turn things around." Gerard Baker of The Times of London also voices concern that, among some Middle Easterners, Mr. Blair "lacks the credibility to win the confidence" of some of those factions, based on his previous record.

Despite the ambivalence regarding Tony Blair's suitability for the job of Middle East envoy, Mr. Baker says, "I think the bigger problem is not the man. It's the mission." And, he notes, the mission is an "extraordinarily difficult one."

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.