How many world leaders, apart from Tony Blair need to ask for an American President's permission before going off on trips of international diplomacy? I don't remember hearing about President Chirac of France doing any such thing, for example. And yet Blair, after famously being rebuffed by Bush at the G8 when begging to go to the Middle East at the start of the Lebanon war, has yet again asked for permission to go to the Middle East, this time to restart talks on the now forgotten 'Road Map'. On this occasion he got it.
The Prime Minister, who returns from holiday this week, plans to make the quest for a viable Palestinian state a priority for his remaining period in office and is ready to act as an international progress chaser if talks can be resumed.
This all sounds very encouraging, but how much influence does Blair really have in the region these days? I mentioned before that I didn't think he was the best man for the job after the recent fighting in Lebanon and his deliberate attempts to prevent a ceasefire, a ceasefire which was only reached after he was advised to take a back seat on the crisis by the deputy secretary-general of the UN Mark Malloch Brown and eventually went off on holiday. But while Blair has been in Barbados, his beleaguered Middle East envoy Lord Levy has been working behind the scenes to prepare for Blair's trip, without much success it would seem.
Downing Street and Levy refused any comment yesterday on his meetings. But a diplomatic source familiar with the talks told The Observer that Olmert's message was: 'Not now. After this difficult war, Israelis are simply not ready for new talks with the Palestinians.'
Blair still intends to go ahead with this mission, but he is unlikely to get anywhere. Ehud Olmert has announced a halt to any more withdrawals from the West Bank, and refuses to discuss peace with Syria. It also looks like Israel is preparing for "round two" of the war in Lebanon with more violations of the ceasefire planned. None of this bodes well for any kind of progress by Blair when he makes his trip, and he cannot be unaware of this.
It looks likely that this much-heralded Middle East mission is merely another stunt to try and curb the growing criticism in his party over his foreign policy and closeness to Bush prior to the Labour Party Conference in September and to revive his shattered international standing. In that context, failure of the mission won't really matter to him. He can just come back and say that he tried. Of course if he gets Bush on board for a serious attempt at finding a solution, that might very well change things, but that possibility seems farfetched with the looming confrontation with Iran getting closer. And we all know that Bush's record on Middle East diplomacy is "crap". That seems to be the only thing the dysfunctional Labour Party can agree on.