Waving goodbye? Blair had lost them at 'hello'

November 24, 2016 23:25

When Tony Blair was parachuted in as representative of the Middle East Quartet in 2007 he seemed an odd choice.

The unpaid job appeared too low-key for a former British Prime Minister, especially one who carried with him the baggage of the unauthorised invasion of Iraq and engagement in Afghanistan.

My own experience of the role of the Quartet dates back to 2005 when the late Ariel Sharon unilaterally ended the Israeli presence in Gaza.

I was assisting the then-Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, in writing his biography and he invited me to the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem for a first-hand view of his work.

Around the table were representatives of Israel, the Palestinians and aid organisations. But these were not grand discussions about security, borders and the status of Jerusalem.

Top of the agenda was who should be responsible for removing the rubble left when Israel bulldozed settlements in Gaza at the behest of the Palestinians.

The conversation moved on to the exciting subject of opening bus corridors that would allow the Palestinians living or working in Gaza to link up with brethren in the West Bank. How many buses would there be? Who would run them? What route would they take and who would be responsible for the security? This was important, but a role for "technical" experts rather than a statesman.

Blair knew the limited nature of the job, which is largely economic, when he was gifted it by President George W Bush. Middle East peace prospects were looking up with Ariel Sharon recognising that a Greater Israel, including Gaza and chunks of the West Bank, no longer seemed attractive because of population realities that would eventually see a Jewish state overtaken by Arab citizens.

The former PM had strong links, like all British leaders, to the Gulf states - because of UK arms sales - and saw it as a diplomatic and commercial opportunity.

His status meant doors to Gulf states would remain open and he was able to use those connections to advance commercial interests and those of the Blair Foundation.

In practical terms he moved the Quartet offices (funded by the UN, EU, US and Russia) to the diplomatic quarter of East Jerusalem - giving staff a permanent home - and advanced some commercial deals.

Blair persuaded Israel to provide the Palestinians with the wavelength to set up the Wataniya mobile network on the West Bank.

He also encouraged UK gas group BG to sign a deal with the Palestinians to develop the $1 billion Gaza Marine natural gas project.

The stalled peace process meant that he was never seriously able to provide the overarching economic development required to underpin peace in the region. In the end a perceived bias towards Israel left him without friends among the major stakeholders.

November 24, 2016 23:25

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