STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Tony Blair was out of a job yesterday but not for long. He stepped down as Britain's prime minister. Hours later, he was offered a new job, one that may be fraught with even more difficulties than his old one - that would be promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He will be an envoy for the Middle East Quartet - the United Nations, the European Union, the U.S. and Russia - a group formed specifically to mediate that conflict.

We've called Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group to find out more. Good morning.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Middle East and North Africa Program Director, International Crisis Group): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, Tony Blair begins his new job with this rather large challenge - winning over Arab confidence and the confidence of the Palestinians.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, yes. I mean, he has some assets, which is that those who deal with him know that he has the reputation, the credibility and the access to President Bush. What they will distrust is what he's done up until now in terms of the Iraq war, in terms of his positions during the war last summer between Israel and Hezbollah. So he comes with mixed baggage, and he's going to have to prove himself more than just to the leaders, also to the people.

MONTAGNE: Well, and you speak about the war in Iraq. But also, is there not the perception that Tony Blair speaks for President Bush, which would put him, what, in a position of apparent non-neutrality?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, you know, it's both a strength and a weakness. If you had an envoy who promised things but could never deliver because President Bush or the United States will not back him up, that wouldn't be of much help either. But as you also say, the fact that he's been so aligned with President Bush means that he's viewed suspiciously by many in the region, not necessarily by the leaders who will look more at his ability to get things done, but again by those who are mainly Palestinians and Arabs who are going to look at him as somebody who is not on their side.

MONTAGNE: And how much harder has his job been made or would his job be made by the split between the rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, you know, it would have been a hard job under any circumstance. This certainly doesn't make it any easier. Because he's dealing only with parts of the Palestine territory there's not much he's going to be able to do in Gaza and in the West Bank itself. It's a very divisive, very fragmented situation. His predecessor, Jim Wolfensohn, as special envoy, wasn't able to do much because he wasn't given the tools to do so, and he was facing an easier situation.

MONTAGNE: Now, where can Tony Blair make the most gains?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, what he's been asked to do is mainly to help rebuild the Palestinian economy by gathering funds and rebuild Palestinian institutions to prepare them for statehood. He may be able to make progress on those. The concern is that it doesn't really matter if it's Tony Blair or Superman. The question is not who he is but whether he's been given the tools to get the job done. And because he's not being asked to deal with the political issues, because he can't really deal with security issues, his mandate ultimately may be too limited for somebody even of his caliber to succeed.

MONTAGNE: So those are, what, the tools to get the job done?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, what he needs to really get the job done is, number one, to have the confidence of both sides. Number two, to have the ability to pressure people to do what they may not want to do on both sides, Israeli or Palestinian: to get the Palestinians to reform their institutions, to get the Israelis to lift the checkpoints and roadblocks so that Palestinians could move around. And third, I think he's going to have to have more than this limited mandate. He's going to have to be able to deal with more sensitive issues, and that's going to depend very much on whether the United States is prepared to give him that room to maneuver.

MONTAGNE: Although, you know, just looking at Tony Blair's history, he has had some notable diplomatic successes with Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Libya.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, yes. And the Northern Ireland precedent is the most intriguing because there, too, he had to deal with a movement that was branded a terrorist movement and he had to find ways to deal with it. His mandate here doesn't really include dealing with Hamas, the Islamist movement that won the last elections and that now is in a fight with Fatah. But maybe that president will inspire him to realize that you can't deal with a political situation as fraught as the Palestinian one if you're excluding a constituency as large as Hamas is.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Robert Malley is the Middle East and North Africa program director of the International Crisis Group.

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