Middle East suffers, but where is Tony Blair?
Now the killing of eight people is just the excuse Israeli hawks need, warns Philip Jacobson
Yesterday's deadly terrorist attack on a religious school in Jerusalem threatens to trigger a crushing Israeli assault on Hamas strongholds in the teeming refugee camps of the Gaza Strip. Although the lone gunman was a Palestinian resident of east Jerusalem, and not a Hamas member sent from Gaza, Israeli government hawks have long been pressing for a ground offensive to root out Gaza's Islamic militant factions responsible for raining rockets on Israeli civilian targets.
According to unconfirmed reports, Israel recently asked the UN to consider establishing "humanitarian corridors" that would allow Palestinian civilians to flee in the event of a full-scale invasion of Gaza.
The bloodshed in Jerusalem followed hard on the heels of a stark warning by Western aid agencies that the Gaza Strip faces an imminent "humanitarian implosion" unless Israel's current economic blockade is lifted. Inevitably, this has raised awkward questions about Tony Blair's role as official envoy for the so-called Middle East Quartet. As point man for the UN, EU, United States and Russia, he is charged with nudging Israelis and Palestinians towards a lasting peace settlement.
The Quartet is committed to alleviating the grinding poverty that drives despairing young Palestinians into the arms of extremist groups. Yet conditions in Gaza are said to be worse than ever. The aid agencies warn that the local economy has effectively collapsed: supplies of food and water are running out, severe problems with sewage treatment and power supplies are undermining basic healthcare, and unemployment is approaching 50 per cent.
The agencies contend this crisis is "man-made, completely avoidable and with the necessary political will could be reversed" and have urged the Quartet to take remedial action before it is too late.
Blair's mission in Jerusalem - where he and his team occupy a floor of the delightful American Colony hotel - was launched with much fanfare last summer, but diplomatic observers are questioning whether he is up to the job.
His decision to accept a lucrative post with a major US bank raised eyebrows in a region where Uncle Sam's devout support for Israel is a constant bone of contention. More pertinently, there is no sign yet that Blair is prepared to tackle the Israeli government's persistent obstruction of Quartet efforts to revive the Palestinian economy.
Earlier this week, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, popped up again in Israel, insisting that leaders on both sides are eager to resume peace talks. But as beleaguered Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas knows all too well, Condi's continued refusal to include Hamas in negotiations effectively rules out any settlement acceptable to the Palestinian "street", where support for armed resistance to Israel remains strong. ·
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