Despite renewed violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he sees hope for progress in the Middle East peace process — in the form of President-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration.
Blair, a special envoy for the "peace quartet" group of the United Nations, says the sense of optimism surrounding the new administration may be of benefit. "The expectations have changed," he says, "and there is this enormous sense of hope and possibility — but the decisions haven't. And these decisions are tough."
The key challenge will be to turn that goodwill into real progress, he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
While some speculate that the Obama administration will mark a departure from the policies of President Bush, others say Obama won't behave very differently than many other U.S. presidents — and that his pursuit of American interests is likely to bring disappointment.
"Of course you'll find that within a short period of taking office, there will be all sorts of criticisms that are being made, but that's the way it is," Blair says. "And I'm sure he — in fact, I know perfectly well he understands that."
Blair says that once a cease-fire in Gaza is negotiated, there are several steps that could ease the tension in the region.
"The first thing you do is, you get massive humanitarian help in," he says.
Then, Obama's administration must show that it has a plan for ending the violence — a plan that Blair stresses must involve the international community.
But with people in the United States and around the globe reeling from "the worst economic crisis the world has known for decades," Blair says, he understands that there are other matters competing for the new president's attention.
Obama must find a way to address all of these issues, Blair says. "Here's the thing about being a president or prime minister," he says. "Unfortunately, you don't get to choose the agenda of problems. The agenda chooses itself."
The situation in Gaza, he says, "is also a crisis and also requires focusing upon."
Blair says that after talking with Obama and his choice for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, he is certain the United States will be fully engaged in finding solutions in the Middle East.
The lesson to be learned from recent violence there, Blair notes, is that Gaza must be a part of any plans for a lasting peace.
"There was a feeling, I think, that maybe you push ahead on the West Bank, and you just kind of put Gaza in the isolation ward for a time," he says. "What this conflict in Gaza shows is that that's not going to happen. You're going to have to deal with that alongside dealing with the West Bank."
Some analysts have said they believe Clinton cannot be effective in the Middle East because she might be perceived as having a bias toward Israel. But Blair says Clinton's good relations with Israel, as a senator and a former first lady, will be an asset.
"Everybody knows in the region that unless you have the right relationship with Israel, you can't sort this," Blair says. "So the fact that Sen. Clinton is respected in Israel is a benefit — it's not a problem."