JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Former British prime minister Tony Blair is standing down as the Quartet representative in the Middle East, the organization said on Wednesday, after eight years struggling to break ground in peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.
Officials close to the Quartet of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, said Blair, 62, would continue to play an informal role in trying to forge a two-state solution between the Palestinians and Israel.
A Quartet statement said Blair “plans to step aside” and expressed appreciation for what it called his “unwavering commitment to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace” and efforts to improve the Palestinian economy.
He tried to pull together the strands of diplomacy between Washington, Brussels, New York and Moscow as a high-profile go-between. But Blair failed to gain the full trust of either the Palestinians or Israel, which has always kept its closest contacts with the United States via the secretary of state.
This left Blair waging an uphill battle to find any substantive common ground between the sides.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Blair had “made great efforts to advance stability in the region” helping to bridge Israeli, Palestinians gaps “in times of crisis.”
Netanyahu hoped that Blair “will be able to continue contributing from his experience on behalf of regional peace and stability,” a statement from the Israeli leader’s office said.
Former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ultranationalist, praised Blair as a “true friend of Israel” he said had made “great efforts” to resolve its conflicts with Arab neighbors, and improve Israeli, British ties while he served as British prime minister from 1997 until he stepped down in 2007.
A senior Palestinian official, Hanan Ashrawi, was dismissive of Blair, telling Reuters his departure had been anticipated. She said he had a minimal impact on Quartet diplomacy and shown “bias toward the Israeli side.
“He had no rules except to sometimes listen to what Netanyahu had to say,” Ashrawi said.
An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Blair wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he would leave the role of Quartet envoy effective at the end of June.
When appointed in 2007, Blair at first concentrated on trying to improve economic conditions for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, pursuing the work of his predecessor James Wolfensohn, a former World Bank president.
The Palestinians were not happy with Blair’s economic focus, feeling the main priority was a state they seek in territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, and that he should have tackled that issue from the start.
Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 but it and Egypt still control the enclave’s borders, and Israel also continues to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Blair sought to reinvigorate Middle East diplomacy at a time when international brokers had largely failed to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to a resolution of their generations-old differences.
Peace negotiations engineered by Washington last broke down a year ago in disputes over Israeli settlement-building on occupied land and prisoner releases sought by the Palestinians.
A source close to Blair in London, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the former prime minister would now “concentrate on strengthening relations between Israel and the wider Arab world”, paying more attention to regional diplomacy.
Blair also planned to look at ways of “encouraging Israel to take measures to dramatically improve the daily lives of Palestinians in Gaza”, where 2,100 Palestinians, 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians died and thousands of Gaza homes were destroyed in a two-month war last year.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations and Guy Faulconbridge in London; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Janet Lawrence