Two former prime ministers, Tony Blair and Shimon Peres, each have new jobs which position them to be the wild cards of Israeli-Arab relations for the near future. Last month, Blair was named as the Representative of the Quartet (U.S., U.N, E.U. and Russia) to the Israelis and Palestinians and to spearhead new efforts with regard to that conflict.
The Quartet issued a statement laying out Blair’s mandate – it is a limited one which in no way references the big “final status” issues (ie: Jerusalem, borders, refugees). But one can only wonder if a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be content with the micro-issues of ensuring Palestinian trucks carrying cucumbers can get to market on time. In fact, there have already been rumors of Blair pressing and planning behind the scenes for a broader mandate – one that can get him positioned to “swing for the fences” of a broad Israeli-Palestinian deal and his Nobel Prize.
Similarly, one can see that Shimon Peres is not prepared to confine himself to the traditional ceremonial role of President of Israel. A shabbat has not passed since he moved in to Beit HaNasi, and he is inserting himself into the political debate by calling for direct talks between Israel and Syria.
Some might view the ability of these two former heads of state to “freelance” as useful to prod reluctant parties to undertake politically difficult decisions. Given the history, we would worry about unaccountable freelancers acting in this arena. We take some comfort, though, in the continuing clear-eyed commitment to principle that President Bush reiterated in his nuanced speech earlier this week – it keeps the onus for progress right where it belongs.