Tony Blair is wasting his time
Launching a new column on international affairs, our foreign editor assesses the Middle East Envoy’s first year
How much impact has Tony Blair had in his year as the Quartet’s Middle East envoy? According to one government adviser, it all boils down to a matter of parking at Jerusalem’s legendary American Colony Hotel, where the former British prime minister has his offices. “When he’s there, they cordon off the car park,” he sniffs, “and you have to leave your car outside.”
Fortunately for aficionados of the East Jerusalem hotel, Blair is only in residence for a few days a month. His team, however, has taken up the entire fourth floor, now the nexus of ambitious plans to support peace through improving the Palestinian security services, building housing and infrastructure and reviving the long-dormant economy.
Put another way, that’s policemen, plumbing, and private enterprise — a narrow remit, and not a particularly sexy one. But Blair, rather bafflingly, given his disastrous Iraqi adventure, has embraced this equally unpromising mission with puppyish enthusiasm.
His strange hybrid boss, the Quartet, is far from united. The Europeans are forever struggling to gain some foothold, having been traditionally relied on to stump up the money while not getting much of a say in decision-making. The US involvement in Israel-Palestine has been lackadaisical at best for the last eight years. Russia is working entirely to its own agenda, which is usually the opposite of whatever the US wants. And the UN is, well, the UN.
Perhaps most impressively, Blair managed to put bums on seats at the Paris donors’ conference last December, raising $7.7 billion. And he keeps plugging away. At the follow-up, a Bethlehem investment conference last May, he declared Palestine “open for business!”.
As if to prove this point, 20 Israeli businessmen dined with their Palestinian counterparts at an event hosted by the PA tourism minister.
All very nice — except Israelis are, in reality, banned from even entering Bethlehem. And the fact that Blair’s plane was nearly shot down by Israeli fighter jets as he was en route to Bethlehem can have done little to improve its image as a holiday destination.
On a recent visit, the town celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus Christ seemed stuck in a dusty timewarp rather than in the throes of an economic revival. Its top hotel, the Inter Continental — where Blair himself spent a much-publicised night last December to promote the town as a tourist hotspot — does have a swimming pool.
But there isn’t much else to do here apart from drink rather delicious Taybeh beer — produced in the West Bank’s only brewery — and commiserate with shopkeepers brooding over piles of tourist tat stamped with the depressing legend “Bethlehem 2000”.
Coachloads full of the more intrepid pilgrims zoom in and out, with a pit stop at the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto. But that’s pretty much it. No one stays in the hotels. The restaurants are empty. It is just a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem.
The same issue comes up again and again: that without access to markets and freedom of movement, the Palestinian economy, restricted already as it is to the West Bank, will never get beyond moribund. Restricted roads and a convoluted permit system hamper movement. There are hundreds upon hundreds of roadblocks in the West Bank, and Blair has managed to remove fewer than half-a-dozen.
It took a long time for both sides to realise that there could never be a military solution to this conflict. And it may be all the rage right now, but an economic solution will not be enough, either, without a political horizon.
The tragedy is that, as British PM, Blair had some credibility. Maybe his situation should serve as a warning to currently serving world leaders: at the very most, you only get one chance to make a difference. Fail to use it, and you are doomed to spend your political retirement sweeping up the pieces.