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Tony Blair's Palestinian pickle

Critics who say he can't make a difference underestimate his determination.

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As the British would say, using that slangy phrase that conveys puzzlement, incredulity, and grudging admiration, it "takes the cake."

Having lost support and the prime ministership for embarking on a difficult war in one Arab country, Iraq, Tony Blair is taking on a new, seemingly intractable problem in another Arab territory, the arid Palestinian lands of Gaza and the West Bank.

The question is whether the Palestinians themselves have just squandered another opportunity to position these territories as the cornerstone of an independent state living in amity with their protagonist neighbor Israel. A peaceful resolution of the hostility between Palestinians and Israelis might be the key to resolving many other problems in the Middle East.

But Israel cannot accept a neighboring state that is pledged to destroy it, and that is exactly what Hamas, the Islamist party with a military arm that seized control of Gaza last month, has vowed to do. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the planting of "the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." It would establish an Islamist state not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank, where the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, runs an administration that is acceptable to Israel, the United States, and the European Union (EU).

One further complication is that Hamas, whose military arm has a record of terrorism and is backed by Iran, won a legitimate victory in parliamentary elections last year, largely because it has a reputation for good works among the Palestinian people. By contrast, the Fatah party of President Abbas, carrying the mantle of deceased leader Yasser Arafat, has a reputation of corruption and incompetence.

Into this messy political situation now steps Mr. Blair as the emissary of the Quartet, the combination of the US, the EU, the United Nations, and Russia that seeks to impose order and stability upon it. He does not do so with universal optimism. Some say that his closeness to President Bush and his support of the war in Iraq is a liability that will hobble his effectiveness with militant Arabs. Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad has said that while he was Britain's prime minister, Blair "was not honest and was not helpful in solving the conflict in the Middle East."

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