What Tony Blair is doing in the Middle East

By Toby Greene, October 14, 2013
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What has Tony Blair ever done for peace?

British journalists visiting Israel can invariably be relied upon to ask their local counterparts sooner or later: “So what do people think of Tony Blair over here?” The question often seems to be asked with a hint of a snigger. After all, he’s been the Quartet’s peace envoy for six years, and there’s little sign of peace. UK press coverage of his activities are more likely to focus on his business dealings, or the latest sighting of him aboard a private plane or yacht, than what he has been up to in Jerusalem.

When Israelis and Palestinians were recently marshalled back to negotiations, it was the US Secretary of State John Kerry doing the legwork, not Blair. Now the sides are talking, it is US diplomat Martin Indyk who is the third party in the room.

Yet, at President Peres’s 90th-birthday bash, Blair spoke with pride about chalking up his 100th trip to the region. In a sizeable office in East Jerusalem, an international team of diplomats staff his mission. Blair is in town often enough to have his own flat above the shop, just like the good old days in Downing Street.

Blair has bet on the possibility that the Palestinians can be a credible peace partner and that Israel will do the right thing accordingly

Indeed, few international statesmen in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can have devoted as much time to it. But if he’s not in the room with negotiators, what is Tony Blair up to, and why?

No doubt Blair had personal motives when he accepted the job offered to him by the Bush administration. After resigning as prime minister, he maintained the ambition to be a player on the world stage, and his role in this most high-profile of disputes has kept him in the diplomatic game. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has chewed up and spat out many talented international statesmen. For a man who does not lack ways to stay busy, it is a remarkable investment of personal energy. To understand Blair’s staying power in this unforgiving political minefield, one has to understand that his agenda is in one sense much narrower, and in another sense much wider, than is generally understood.

Why narrower? Because, mostly, Blair has accepted that his role is not to broker final-status negotiations, but to facilitate the bottom-up development of Palestinian security, economic and political institutions.

This is a process he began to champion as prime minister. In the dark days of the second intifada, when Israel was responding to suicide bombings by reoccupying Palestinian cities, most European statesmen were putting the weight of the blame on Israel. Blair, however, took a different tack, by calling for an international focus on Palestinian reform.

His then foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, recalled Blair’s conviction that “it’s no good telling the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians if there is nobody to negotiate with and they have no structures. We have to help them to see that they need structures and help them to build them.”

Blair’s logic was that, if you wanted to advance the peace process, you needed a credible Palestinian partner. As prime minister in 2003 and 2005, Blair hosted international conferences in London to rally support for Palestinian institutional development.

This reflected a view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very different from many others in Europe, particularly on the left, who were more inclined to accept the Palestinian narrative that the source of the conflict was first and foremost the Israeli occupation.

While Blair long supported the rights of the Palestinians to statehood, his view of the conflict was always underpinned by a view of Israel not as a colonial occupier but as a liberal democracy facing extraordinary threats in a region littered with autocracy and extremism.

In the wake of 9/11, Blair believed that advancing the peace process was a vital component of rallying regional support for the war on terror and tried, generally in vain, to get the US to pay it more attention. However, this did not translate to a belief that Israel was principally to blame for the conflict, nor the belief held by many on the left that the West’s support for Israel was one of the root causes of Islamic anger against the West.

He sought to maximise his own limited influence by persuading both Israeli and Palestinian leaders that he deeply understood their aspirations and concerns. Though there were deep frustrations in Whitehall over Israeli policies, not least on settlements, he generally avoided confrontations with his Israeli counterparts that would undermine his reputation as a friend.

The approach was not to everyone’s liking. He has frequently been criticised for not being tough enough. Indeed, even his personal envoy, Lord Levy, was frustrated by Blair’s softly-softly style, which may have ingratiated him with both Israelis and Palestinians but at the cost of pressing home his point.

Levy told me: “In all my experiences with him, he’s very non-confrontational. And I don’t believe he really pushed the agenda he wants to pursue in a tough enough way.”

Others of Blair’s aides however, strongly defended his approach. His former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, argued: “There are different ways you can have influence on other leaders. You can do it by banging them over the head and bullying them and forcing them into doing things. Or you can try and cajole them, sweet-talk them, explain to them why it’s in their interests to do something. Tony was in the latter camp.”

Were he to try to be more forceful, according to Powell, “I don’t think he would have got very far. Because Britain, as Britain, had very little locus in all of this.”

Acting local, thinking global; as Quartet envoy, an important part of Blair’s method has been to use his hard-earned reputation with Israeli leaders as a friend, in persuading them to take steps that will help the Palestinian Authority to develop its institutional capacity: improving freedom of movement; facilitating development of offshore gas; allowing new Palestinian mobile phone networks; creating greater scope for exports.

But while Blair might be acting local, as his frequent interventions on policy debates about the region testify, he is thinking global — to a much wider agenda about the future of the Middle East.

Blair sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as linked to the wider challenges in the region. With increasing intensity, from 9/11 and 7/7 onwards, Blair has articulated a view of the region as being in the grip of a “fundamental struggle for the mind, heart and soul of Islam”. This struggle is between moderates who are ready to embrace the modern world, and anti-liberal and anti-Western radicals who oppose everything we believe in.

For Blair, the radical anti-Western ideology within the Islamic world exploits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to garner legitimacy. Instead of seeking to address the imagined grievances of anti-Western forces in the region, Blair believes those forces must be confronted. But he also believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict helps extremists to justify their stance and win support among Islamic opinion in the region and beyond. Find an equitable end to the conflict and you deal a blow to the extremists by refuting their narrative.

So Blair’s bottom-up state-building serves a double purpose. It is helping to create a viable and secure neighbour with whom Israel can make peace, while at the same time empowering West Bank Palestinian moderates against the Gaza-based, Islamist Hamas.

Blair would no doubt like to be more involved in the final-status talks — reprising his role from the Good Friday Agreement, awake to the small hours, personally drafting text that could massage away 100 years of conflict. But he no doubt understands that only the Americans have any chance of playing that role successfully. For six years, Blair has accepted that he works in the space that the US allows him, preferring to have a limited role, rather than no role.

Frustration from the Palestinian side at his approach has certainly become more public of late. Some accuse him of helping Israel ease the occupation, rather than ending it. But Blair continues to influence and innovate. His office is now the drafter of a new “Palestinian Economic Initiative” — following the plan announced by John Kerry to reinvigorate the ailing Palestinian economy through massive investment in the private sector.

Until now, Blair’s bet has been that with the right conditions and support, the Palestinians can be a credible peace partner, and that if Israelis are faced with a credible partner, they will do the right thing. All those who believe in a negotiated two-state solution will hope the current round of talks bear out this position.

If progress is not achieved, these and many other assumptions will be placed under the harshest of spotlights. Palestinian institutional and economic development can only go so far without political progress and a shared vision between Israelis and Palestinians about what a Palestinian state will look like. If and when Blair should decide there are better ways to commit his time, it is hard to imagine how the Quartet mission itself — which rests so much on his personal prestige, relationships and energy — would carry on.

Dr Toby Greene is director of research for BICOM, deputy editor of BICOM’s Fathom journal, and author of ‘Blair, Labour and Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11’ (Bloomsbury).

Last updated: 12:37pm, October 14 2013