The international Middle East Quartet -- the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- has named Tony Blair a special envoy to help lay groundwork for an envisaged Palestinian state.
The announcement came shortly after Mr. Blair stepped down Wednesday as British Prime Minister.
US and European diplomats are hopeful that the high-profile appointment of the former prime minister will give new impetus to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, at a time of high tensions after the intra-Palestinian conflict that left the militant Islamic movement Hamas in control of Gaza.
A joint statement by the Quartet partners said the latest events in Gaza and the West Bank make it more urgent than ever to advance the search for peace in the Middle East, and have reinforced the need for the international community to help build the institutions for a viable Palestinian state in both areas.
The statement said Mr. Blair, to be based in Jerusalem and supported by a team of experts, will seek to mobilize international aid to the Palestinians, focused on building their capacity for governance and economic development.
Mr. Blair's mandate was carefully negotiated among the Quartet members over the past several days. At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that under an agreed "division of labor," the United States will continue to have the lead role in political efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
"Secretary (of State Rice) and President Bush are going to focus on political negotiations, as they have. And Mr. Blair is going to focus his considerable talents, and his efforts, on building those Palestinian institutions. I dare say that that is going to take as much time as he is ready to devote to the issue, and I know he is ready to devote a considerable amount of time to building those institutions."
McCormack said the institution-building effort by Mr. Blair will be of comparable importance to the U.S.-led diplomacy, since there cannot be a Palestinian state without success in both areas.
He said part of the reason why Palestinian institutions are so lacking now is the legacy of the late former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who he said built a "thoroughly corrupt" government and a system of security forces intended only to maintain his hold on power.
The Blair mission will succeed, and expand on, that of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who made a largely unsuccessful effort on behalf of the Quartet to build up the economy of Gaza after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the area in 2005.
Officials here say Mr. Blair will not draw a salary though his travel and office expenses will be paid for by the Quartet. The four-power grouping produced a detailed "road map" to a two-state Israeli-Palestinian settlement in 2003, but implementation of the plan has been stalled for several years.