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Officials: Blair to become Mideast peace envoy

Story Highlights

• Tony Blair will be envoy for Mideast Quartet, officials say
• Blair holds last news conference with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
• Finance Minister Gordon Brown will succeed Blair on Wednesday
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Tony Blair will become an envoy for Mideast peace, U.S. officials said Tuesday, Blair's last full day as Britain's prime minister.

Blair will represent the Mideast Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. An official announcement is expected Wednesday, U.S. State Department officials and Quartet diplomats said.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials have expressed interest in having Blair in the role, senior officials said.

Assistant Secretary David Welch, the State Department's top envoy for the Middle East, discussed the idea with Blair in London last week.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined to confirm the Blair appointment but said the Quartet discussed the issue at a meeting in Jerusalem Tuesday.

"They have talked about the idea that, as we said, about having an envoy, having someone who would be available on behalf of the Quartet to work on a variety of issues," Casey said.

Blair will focus on ways to strengthen Palestinian institutions for a future Palestinian state. The political negotiations on final status issues would be left to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, senior officials said.

One source said Russia had some concerns about appointing Blair, but Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved Blair's selection.

Blair willing to help

Blair refused to acknowledge the appointment when asked about it at a press conference in London on Tuesday.

But, standing alongside visiting California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at his final news conference, Blair said he was ready to help in whatever way he could.

"I think that anybody who cares about greater peace and stability in the world knows that a lasting and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential," Blair said.

"And I will do whatever I can to help such a resolution come about," he added, after talks with Schwarzenegger, the last foreign official to visit him before he leaves 10 Downing Street on Wednesday.

The last envoy for the Quartet, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, also worked primarily with the Palestinians, focusing on boosting the economy in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

He left his job in frustration in March 2005, claiming the international boycott of the Palestinian government following the January 2005 election that brought Hamas into the government made it impossible to do his job.

Pros and cons on Blair's credibility

Some Quartet officials questioned whether Blair had enough credibility in the Middle East to take on such a post. Diplomats acknowledged that Blair is seen as the co-author of the Iraq war and is blamed in part for the current situation there.

And one diplomat noted that Blair accomplished little during his last trip to the Middle East in December. "His legacy in the Middle East is not a good one," this diplomat said.

But a senior U.N. official said Blair is a "high-power, able statesman who has a lot of stature in the world."

"He is a man with access at the top," this official said. "... It is hard to ignore him. Does he have 'street cred' with the Arabs? No. And his association with Bush and the Iraq war is a problem. He may not have much credibility with Arab leaders, but he is someone they will talk to."

Additionally, this official pointed out that if Blair has the backing of the Bush administration, the post of envoy will be taken seriously.

Wolfensohn had the backing of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, but not the United States, which made his work more difficult.

Blair stands down after a decade that saw Labor win a record three general elections, peace come to Northern Ireland and the British economy enjoying a record sustained boom.

But the Iraq war and the cash-for-honors scandal damaged his reputation. Political infighting within his ruling Labor Party also culminated in a political coup last year that saw him pledge to leave office early.

On Wednesday Blair will attend his last prime minister's questions session in the House of Commons. He will then be taken to see Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace to formally hand in his resignation.

Minutes later Gordon Brown will travel to the palace, where the queen will invite him to form a government. (Brown profile)


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