Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, has been appointed the Quartet's representative to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. Since hearing this news, my reaction has moved from dismay via detached analysis to the warmest of welcomes.
First, dismay. Here is the man whose brilliant understanding of Middle East issues led him to commit British prestige and resources in supporting the Bush administration's failed policies in Iraq and in the disastrous effort to "democratize" the region. This is the leader who told an audience in Pakistan recently that Islamist extremism in that part of the world was generated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on whose prime ministerial watch the United Kingdom produced a home-grown generation of angry Islamists and, most recently, an epidemic of petty and despicable anti-Israel boycotts. v
Blair, like US President George W. Bush, cites his religious beliefs as inspiration for his Middle East policies. I harbor a profound mistrust of religious motivation--Christian, Muslim or Jewish--for strategy and statesmanship in our part of the world.
My second reaction was a more analytical look at Blair's new job. His predecessor, James Wolfensohn, sought to exploit Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza two years ago to promote economic development and well-being. While his efforts failed, he can hardly be blamed for Palestinians' inability or unwillingness to keep the peace in Gaza and make good on the infrastructure left behind by Israel and the generous aid he recruited. Nor is Ariel Sharon's unwillingness to even attempt to coordinate withdrawal with the PLO/PA Wolfensohn's fault.
But Tony Blair is a politician, not an economist. The Quartet has commissioned him to help develop Palestinian political institutions. In view of his energy and passion for the issue he will undoubtedly push for a broader mandate to foster options for a peace process; indeed, Bush may already envision Blair's mission in precisely this expanded context. Yet how can either mission work when both the Palestinians and the Quartet are hopelessly divided and the international playing field so congested?
The American and European members of the Quartet continue to boycott Hamas in Gaza. The Russians and the United Nations are unhappy with this policy, which they feel was imposed on them by the United States, and believe it is counterproductive and helped bring about the Hamas coup in Gaza last month. They seek contact with Hamas, as do Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Which Quartet policy will Blair represent? Which government will he help reorganize?
Then, too, Blair will not be alone: the EU, Russia and the UN all have their own representatives working to alleviate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The EU's Javier Solana and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are also very active here, while Blair's fellow Europeans, whose backing he needs, consider him too "American" and complain they were never consulted regarding his appointment. The EU has already tried at least once to help Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas organize his office, with no appreciable results. Blair will have his work cut out for him merely to avoid repeating the failed efforts of his predecessors and tripping over his fellow global peacemakers.
Inevitably, my ultimate reaction to the Blair appointment was to look for the bright side, the silver lining. Blair is a talented and energetic man; by and large he has been quite fair and evenhanded in his attitude toward Israel. He probably won't do any harm; he may even do some good. At worst, he'll throw in the towel after a year or two and go home disabused of all his illusions. At best, his legendary persuasive powers and charm will achieve real results.
So why begrudge him his appointment? Welcome to the fray, Tony Blair. You are almost certainly not the messiah we've all been waiting for. But then again, there hasn't been a messiah in this part of the world for 2,000 years.- Published 2/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
It may not, at this early stage, be fair to try to analyze or predict the potential that Tony Blair's appointment as the Quartet's Middle East envoy brings. However there are things to be said about his mission. While Tony Blair might be new in the position, neither the Quartet nor the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is new.
Regardless of his credentials, Blair is coming to this mission with a problem of credibility stemming from his part in the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq as well as his generally subservient role to Washington. This is especially problematic since the US is a major component of the Quartet--and the problem.
The other problem he will have is that he is not from the US, the decisive player in the Quartet. He enjoys the support of the American president, but while the Middle East is geographically far away from the US, politically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict belongs to domestic American concerns.
Having said that, it needs to be made clear that appointing an envoy totally dedicated to the conflict is a constructive idea. Because the issues are so complicated they need daily follow-up. Attention has to be given to political, economic, security and humanitarian aspects, issues that are always interconnected. It was not by chance or the result of luck that the US succeeded in convening a peace conference in Madrid 16 years ago. It took Secretary of State James Baker and his team eighteen visits in the space of one year to achieve that.
In addition, the history of the conflict has shown us that when the parties are left to their own devices, their relations almost invariably deteriorate. The best example of this is the period since George W. Bush took office and decided to abandon the conflict. The vacuum was filled by Israel's military superiority. Ariel Sharon took America's absence as a signal that he had a free hand. The results can be seen everywhere now, from the humanitarian suffering of Palestinians through the political stalemate to the election victory of Hamas in 2006. Only with international attention and an active third party role do relations move in a positive direction.
The question now is what conditions can help Blair succeed in his mission. Considering that he lacks neither experience nor contacts, success will largely depend on the level of support he receives from the US government, particularly the president. We just saw the secretary of state herself fail to get the necessary support of her own president for suggestions--that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not like--to revive the peace process. Her team presented a list of benchmarks that Israel refused, a refusal Washington simply accepted.
If Washington is ready to change its approach by seriously investing in Blair to bolster his efforts then there is a chance he can succeed. But if Israel is going to continue to be allowed full freedom to accept or reject whatever it wants, we will remain where we are.
Another condition is the extent to which Blair and the Quartet will be informed by the provisions of international law. So far, the balance of power--the law of the jungle--has been allowed to hold sway. Whether it is United Nations Security Council resolutions or the rulings of the International Court of Justice, neither the US nor Britain has been prepared to hold Israel to account. A clear commitment to international law is necessary for Blair, or any other envoy, to succeed in his mission.
Appointing an envoy is a good idea. An envoy can bear witness on behalf of the international community. Blair can help bring back the parties from a unilateral to a bilateral approach. He can bring back respect for international law. He can hold the parties accountable according to international law. But it all depends on the extent to which he receives the support of the Quartet and especially the US.- Published 2/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
by David Kimchi
Tony Blair must be a masochist. He is certainly not naive, and he assuredly knows into what witches' stew he is putting his toes. He must have read about the frustration that caused his predecessor, Jim Wolfensohn, to throw up his hands in disgust when he quit the job of emissary of the Quartet a little over a year ago.
I can imagine, though, that it is precisely because Tony Blair knows exactly what he is getting himself into that he found the offer so attractive. If he had been a film star, he would have opted to star in the Mission Impossible series; as a statesman he has gone for the political equivalent.
And, like Tom Cruise in that film series, he might just pull it off. Tony Blair is the outstanding statesman of the past decade. His charm, his charisma, his sincerity and his determination will all be brought to bear to render his new function as emissary extraordinaire of the Quartet a resounding success.
His job will be a combination of nursemaid, spring cleaner and school master. His first and most immediate task will be to clean up the institutions of governance in the Palestinian Authority. It is no secret that it was weak PA governance and the corrupt practices of Fateh that handed power to Hamas on a silver platter. The malpractices that have been so rife have gone right up to the top echelons. A strong central authority in Ramallah with the power and ability to entrench the rule of law is a basic prerequisite for any real movement to a better future for the Palestinians. It will also be the most effective barrier to a fundamentalist Hamas takeover in the West Bank.
Tony Blair will find a ready and eager partner for his cleaning up process in Salam Fayyad, the new prime minister, for the key to success will be full and transparent control of the disbursement of funds, without which the efforts of the Quartet envoy will be a waste of time. One can only hope that Fayyad will outlast his predecessors, and that he won't--figuratively--be stabbed in the back by those who stand to lose by the spring cleaning he carries out together with Tony Blair.
Parallel to working for good governance, Blair will have to address the terrible economic situation of the Palestinian territories. His best bet would be to seek out Sir Ronald Cohen, founder of Apax Partners and the Portland Trust, which has quietly been doing Herculean work among the Palestinians. He should read Cohen's article on "Economic Initiatives in Peacemaking" in the latest issue of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, with his experience of twisting the arms of recalcitrant countries to help in Africa, Blair will, more than almost anyone else, be able to coax international donors into helping out in Palestine.
Efforts to improve the Palestinian economy must, however, go through Jerusalem. Unless roadblocks are removed and free movement of Palestinians is restored, no amount of outside help can be effective. Blair, therefore, will have to accost the Israeli government. Negotiating the resumption of the peace process is not, formally, part of his agenda--that will be left to Condoleezza Rice and her Quartet colleagues--but he will soon find out that good governance, good economics and the peace process are all connected and cannot easily be untangled.
For Israel to move forward into meaningful peace negotiations it must have confidence that the Palestinian Authority and its government can deliver, and that means good governance. For the PA to exercise its authority and gain the confidence of its people it must show progress in the peace process. For the economy to improve with outside help previous corrupt practices must be eradicated. That again means good governance. It is all connected.
It will be Tony Blair's task to deal with these different strands. He will have to browbeat the Israelis and lecture the Palestinians. There is no way he will avoid touching on the political elements of the problem; knowing his temperament and his passion for politics, it will be well nigh impossible for him to steer clear of the need to move forward on negotiations for the peace process.
Can he succeed? It will depend to a great extent on the amount of support he gets from his Quartet "masters" and in particular from US President George W. Bush. He will be helped by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem and Fayyad in Ramallah. He will need the support of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. If he gets it, he has a good chance of succeeding--just like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.- Published 2/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. David Kimche served as director-general of the Israel Foreign Ministry. He is currently president of the Israeli Council for Foreign Relations and chairman of the Board of Directors of Maariv.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Wrong man for a wrong mission
an interview with Ali Jarbawi
bitterlemons: Is Tony Blair the right man for the job as the Quartet's Middle East envoy?
Jarbawi: First we have to look at his mission, then we can talk about the person. The mission is more important than whether he is the right person.
There is a problem with the mission. If I understand his mission correctly, in the beginning Blair will work with the Palestinian Authority to upgrade its institutions in order to ready it to become a state. He will help build institutions, improve the economic situation... good governance, in other words.
bitterlemons: Which is needed...
Jarbawi: Yes, but I don't think this is the right approach for the Quartet. It has been tried before, by James Wolfensohn and others. But to come and say we have to upgrade the PA so it can become a state is demeaning to Palestinians. Palestinians, after all, are under occupation.
I wouldn't mind this approach if it was a package deal, if it was clear that at one point the occupation would come to an end, a Palestinian state would be established and the Quartet would work with both the Palestinians and Israelis: the Palestinians for good governance and the Israelis to stop what they are actually doing at the moment.
The right approach is to reach an end to the occupation. As it is, Blair could come here for months without even broaching things like the settlement policy, the wall, the killings, the closures in the West Bank and the suffocation of Gaza, all of the things Israel is engaged in.
Palestinians will not look at this approach as a fair approach. It simply does not address the important questions. Even if we have the best institutions, will the occupation end? Will a Palestinian state be established? Where will it be established?
This is the basic problem with the mission. It is demeaning to come to the people under occupation and keep pushing them to perform better as if to get rid of occupation you need to be somewhat more than a human being.
bitterlemons: And Blair as a person?
Jarbawi: Blair was the prime minister for ten years of a major world power. He had influence. During those ten years he was not successful. If he says now that he is for a two-state solution and a Palestinian state, what did he do for the past ten years to make that a reality? He allied himself with US President George W. Bush, he has Iraq on his conscience... he is tainted. He is not going to be looked at as even-handed.
bitterlemons: Israeli observers seem quite happy with his appointment.
Jarbawi: Of course. For the past ten years he was biased in line with the US administration.
bitterlemons: Do you see anything positive about his appointment? He is very high profile and some argue that his appointment is an indication of some seriousness.
Jarbawi: He came to this job with a divided Quartet behind him. The Russians were not happy about the appointment and it was the Americans that pushed for it, a thank-you for ten years in office selling their program.
I think you need political will. Even the highest-profile person, if there is no political will on the part of the Americans and Israelis, won't be successful in this job. And as I say, the mission is wrong in the first place. The pressure is all on the Palestinian side. In the end, the envoy will come out saying that he couldn't succeed because of security issues, because the Palestinians are divided, etc. From the beginning there is a landmine in Blair's way.
Also, I'm not sure that Blair being appointed proves any political will on behalf of the Americans. He will try to get money for the Palestinians and upgrade institutions, but in the midst of Palestinian divisions it will be a difficult task, and in the end he will blame the Palestinian side for any failure.
bitterlemons: Do you expect any surprises from Blair? Will he, for example, speak to Hamas?
Jarbawi: No. I think he will base his rejection to do so on the events in Gaza and that the Palestinian president himself will not talk to them. Why should an international envoy speak to a group that the Palestinian president himself won't speak to?
bitterlemons: But that leaves an irreparable split among Palestinians that even an international envoy won't address, doesn't it? Won't that make the mission meaningless from the outset?
Jarbawi: I don't think Tony Blair is capable or the right person to do so in any case. I don't think he will be welcome to do so or that the Palestinian public will find that necessary. There are others, the Saudis, Egyptians, etc., to mediate.
bitterlemons: Some have argued that Blair's appointment is an insult to Palestinians. Do you agree?
Jarbawi: I wouldn't use those words. I don't think he will be welcome or that he is the right person. Iraq is a major issue as is all that has happened to us in his time in office. There is also the British heritage here. Do we think that the British, who created the problem in the first place, are going to solve it? I don't think so.
In addition, he doesn't have enough clout now that he is out of office. And in ten years in office he didn't do much anyway. I think he is coming to the job as a favor from the Americans. I don't think they are serious and I don't think the Israelis are ready to deal seriously with the Palestinians for a two-state solution. Blair will come and go and in the end he will pin the blame for the failure of his mission on the Palestinians.- Published 2/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.