Blair: the door is open for Hamas

Tony Blair talks to Richard Angell from Progress about Israel's decision to liberalise its policy on Gaza and his hopes for Middle East peace

Always known for being an optimist, Tony Blair doesn't miss the opportunity to launch into how the change in Israeli policy will make a difference to everyday Gazans.

"It should mean that they can get ordinary foodstuffs and household items as a matter of course. There's a permitted list at the moment which has only got about a hundred items on it. If you switch that to a prohibited list it means thousands of items go in. So it's a big difference."

Not ducking the important issue of construction materials, Blair says, "because of the arrangements for getting construction materials for the UN projects it should mean that we repair sanitation, housing, water and schools and so on. Over time, I hope even in the next few weeks, we should get doubling of the amount of stuff going into Gaza"

There is no time for congratulating him on the success that this deal mean to his role as Quartet Representative, before he jumps straight in: "We have got to implement it now - that's the main thing".

He continues, "You've got to have the capacity at the crossings to bring the stuff in, as Israel will insist on checking it for security reasons. And a lot depends - always always always - on what happens.

"If people do stupid things and start firing rockets again then that will complicate things, but on the assumption that the only problems are logistical then it should be possible to ramp it up pretty quickly. The main crossing at the moment, Kerem Shalom, is open only five days a week for six hours each day, so there's a lot of spare capacity you could put in there."

Israel has come under attack from friend and foe for what happened on the flotilla heading for Gaza. We asked the Quartet Representative what it was that convinced the Israelis to change policy.

"Obviously the flotilla focused people's minds but actually we'd been in discussion already with the government about changing the policy, so that we worry about security, we make the distinction between the security needs of Israel but also the needs of people in Gaza. So ‘weapons out but everything else in' is the basic mantra" he says.

But what does this mean for the Hamas government and for getting Gilad Shalit back for the Israeli people?

"Hamas have got a chance if they want it. The door is open for them to play a part in this. With a very sensible goodwill gesture with the release of Gilad Shalit they would get anything up to 1000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange.

"That would be a major thing. Obviously if they want to be part of the peace process they can be but they have to foreswear killing Israeli citizens in order to be part of it. I think there is a real chance for Hamas if they want to take it and that's the question you can't be sure of, do they want to take it?"

Tony Blair has worked on significant changes in the West Bank on behalf of the Quartet. In the relatively short time since leaving Downing Street he has worked to secure record donor support for the Palestinian Authority in support of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's state building plan. He has worked to improve access and movement on the West Bank which has seen the opening of key check points.

The economy is now growing, and in addition to organising two Palestine Investment Conferences, he has worked to secure the largest foreign direct investment which created a second Palestinian mobile phone network - Wataniya.

"The key to this process is that if the Palestinians create the institutions and the capacity of statehood it means the Israelis will then have confidence that the state will be properly governed. It's a such a small bit of territory they need to have that confidence."

Turning to the wider peace process, the former prime minister said, "I think it is to turn the indirect talks to direct talks in the next couple of months or so. The key to that is that the Palestinians believe talks will be credible, that the context is right, and if there's proper alignment between reality on the ground and the political negotiation."

More importantly he believes, "It is possible to turn peace proximity talks into direct talks and that's what we should do."

Before Mr Blair rushes off to his next meeting, we ask, what hope is there for the region.

"The key thing is to get peace and see the region embrace the modern world, which means different religions and faiths coexisting peacefully, and that there is a state of Israel which is recognised and accepted, and that there is a state of Palestine.

"And thereafter the region can actually concentrate on the great challenges, which are development and education and the fact that the population of the Middle East will double in the next twenty-five years."

Last updated: 4:45pm, June 21 2010