Monday, 23 July 2007

No vacancy in Blair's bid for housing in Jerusalem

Hilltop compound sought, though his work is in West Bank

Monday, July 23, 2007

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will find no space at the inn when he turns up today at Government House, the U.N. headquarters in Jerusalem where he has asked to live and work in his new job as Middle East special envoy.

His new diplomatic colleagues are already incensed at the way Blair's appointment was sprung by the United States last month on the Quartet -- representing the United Nations, European Union, Russia and United States -- and their dismay increased this week when Blair requested accommodations and offices for himself at Government House, a picturesque hilltop compound in southern Jerusalem built in 1930 to house the British High Commissioner under the Palestine Mandate.

It sits on the summit of the Hill of Evil Counsel, where Judas Iscariot is said to have betrayed Jesus for 30 shekels of silver, and has spectacular views to the north over the Dome of the Rock, the Old City of Jerusalem and southwards over Bethlehem, Herodion and the Judean Desert.

Francesco Manca, spokesman for the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization -- which controls Government House -- said there is no empty office space for Blair and the only available living quarters is a two-room apartment that is already occupied by the head of the truce organization, Australian Maj. Gen. Ian Campbell Gordon.

"At present we have nothing," Manca said. "The current situation in Government House is that we are looking for office space for our existing purposes without the addition of anyone new. We are already at the stage where we are using freight containers for extra office space. This is a usual U.N. solution in Sudan but not in Jerusalem. There is no empty house here."

Manca pointed out that Blair's predecessor, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, also considered Government House but set up his office at the American Colony Hotel across town.

"The idea of having Blair here cannot be implemented immediately. Even if this is chosen as the place, significant changes would have to take place to make it feasible," he said.

The prospect of Blair and perhaps a dozen support staff taking up residence in the already overcrowded compound at Government House has set diplomatic tongues wagging in Jerusalem.

Blair probably chose Government House because of its relative isolation and well-established security systems, but U.N. officials do not relish the prospect of hosting such a high-profile tenant who is considered a high-risk target because of his controversial involvement in the Middle East as prime minister.

Blair is considered so unpopular with ordinary Palestinians, who regarded Saddam Hussein as a hero and are firmly opposed to the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq, that it will be impossible for him to stay in Ramallah, even though his new job working with the Palestinians seems to demand it.

"For security reasons, he has to be in Jerusalem," said a U.N. official. "Security is a major problem. Because of his former role as prime minister he would be in danger in the West Bank."

An elegant sandstone chateau built in a 16-acre compound strategically located on a hilltop overlooking the Old City, Government House opened in 1930 to serve as the headquarters for the British high commissioner to Palestine. Since 1948, it has been the headquarters of UNTSO, set up to monitor the Israeli-Jordanian and Israeli-Egyptian cease-fires.

In 1994, the newly appointed special coordinator for the Middle East peace process and his staff (UNSCO) asked to set up their offices there, and were housed in freight containers and hastily constructed modern buildings set up in the grounds. Built in an octagon from locally quarried stone in a blend of traditional Arabic and Mediterranean styles, the main building is surrounded by shaded terraces set among the landscaped formal gardens with a huge ornamental fountain at their center.

The compound is hidden from view by pines and cypress trees, high walls, a severe gateway and modern security systems supplemented with razor wire, anti-car-bomb barricades and cameras.

Diplomats in Jerusalem already are smarting from Blair's comments at his first press conference as special envoy in Lisbon on Thursday, where he appeared to demand a wider political mandate than the narrow task of building Palestinian institutions, the role assigned him by the Quartet.

"If there is going to be a Palestinian state, it is very important to build the capacity of the institutions for this state to be a viable one," said Marc Otte, the EU special representative to the Middle East peace process. "That is the topic on which he will concentrate at the outset, for the time being. The rest, we'll see."

"He expects a political mandate. So far he does not have one," said another UN official. "Blair's focus is only now on building Palestinian institutions and fundraising to build those institutions. His political role is limited. He may be expecting a wider political role. But at the moment, he's not been granted that role. It's not part of his mandate," said the official.

"This might upset a lot of people, including other envoys of other countries. This is your role. You go outside that and it means you are overlapping other people's work. It's a big problem."

This article appeared on page A - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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