Building Arab peace one checkpoint at a time

Tony Blair argues that the best chance for Middle East peace lies in building a new Palestinian state. But this sits awkwardly with his warnings over democracy in Egypt
February 23, 2011
To listen to Donald Macintyre's interview with Tony Blair, click here
Soon after Tony Blair arrived in Jerusalem on 23rd July 2007, as a new international envoy to the Middle East, he called together his makeshift team in the understated glamour of the American Colony hotel. His staff had been hastily seconded from diplomatic missions across the US, Russia, the EU and the UN. Just days before he left 10 Downing Street for the last time on 27th June, countries from this so-called “Quartet” had appointed him to a post that promised to fill at least some of his time ahead. His task, which had defeated scores of diplomats before, was to pursue economic progress in the Palestinian territories, in the hope that this would help open up a road to peace with Israel. In the mission’s improvised offices, occupying the entire fourth floor of the hotel, Blair told his new team: “The bad news is that you’re going to get criticised for not criticising Israel enough. But the good news is that if we succeed, in three years we’ll have something to show for it.” His first prediction was immediately proved right. Many of those working in non-governmental organisations dedicated to helping Palestinians—as well as Blair’s critics back in Europe—greeted the appointment with outrage. How could the prime minister who led Britain into a disastrous Middle East war, on what turned out to be an empty prospectus, act as a broker between Israelis and Palestinians? Some called the role no more than a sop to a world-famous political figure needing an international profile. Nearly four years later, critics still maintain that his hope to have done some good has come to nothing. But it’s fair to argue that Blair has taken the role seriously. He has had some success in helping to improve the economies of the twin zones of the Palestinian territories, perhaps more in Gaza than on the West Bank. He has pushed his mandate to its limit, and has been frustrated above all by the paralysis of the peace process. But the wider point—one where criticism of him has more bite—is that during the uproar in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, he has emerged as a highly cautious advocate of democracy. He acknowledges that elections in Egypt are necessary, but has warned against rushing to make that move, in comments which have seemed paternalistic to many, and out of step with the pace of change. At the end of the first week of the uprising which would later topple President Hosni Mubarak from power, Blair told CNN that while he did not believe an Egyptian majority wanted the Muslim Brotherhood (the banned Islamic party) “what you’ve got to watch” is that the Brotherhood were by far the best organised and funded of the groups that might challenge in the polls. When Blair took on his role in the Palestinian territories, he knew that others had failed in similar tasks. James Wolfensohn, one of the World Bank’s longest-serving presidents, had run into frustrations in 2005 and 2006 as the Quartet’s “special envoy for disengagement from Gaza,” trying to develop the Gaza economy. Wolfensohn, who is Jewish, had shown his irritation with Israel’s intransigence over requests to keep open the crossing points in and out of Gaza, and his impatience probably cost him the support of President George W Bush. Blair himself made a shaky start. He raised expectations too high. Too many of the projects on his wish list, such as a Japanese-funded industrial park in Jericho, were the repackaging of longstanding plans. He has acknowledged how much he had to learn. After an introductory tour of the West Bank conducted by David Shearer, the astute local head of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (now a New Zealand Labour MP), Blair remarked that he wished that he had “known more about all this when I was prime minister.” There were a few barbs from younger Palestinian officials around this time—some surfacing in the “Palestine Papers”: records of Palestinian negotiations leaked in January this year. They accused him of “paternalism,” bias towards “Israel security interests,” and using terms such as “tourist-friendly checkpoints” in Bethlehem. But Palestinian reaction to his appointment was not as implacably hostile as Blair’s critics might have thought. Blair, in meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the first time as envoy, thought he had better be the first to mention Iraq, but Abbas merely shrugged. When Blair alluded to his cordial relations with the Israeli leadership, Abbas remarked that an envoy would not be much good to the Palestinians if he were an enemy of Israel. Nor was this spirit confined to the moderate leadership in Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank, wearily ready to talk to anyone willing to talk to them. There are signs that the radical Islamists of Hamas, by that point in full control of Gaza, would have talked to Blair, had the Quartet—or, more accurately, the US—wanted him to do so. In those early months, everyone chided the Blair mission for making only tiny advances. It was not just the hypercritical staff of NGOs, or the legalistically-minded young Turks of the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah, but fellow European diplomats as well. “If I had managed to keep the Tarquimia checkpoint [in the southern West Bank] open for another half hour every day, I’d be pretty pleased with myself,” said one middle-ranking diplomat at the time. “But he’s a former prime minister, for God’s sake.” Many of these charges now look unfair or out of date, particularly those which accuse him of failing to help the peace talks. That was never his job, even though he might have wanted it to be. The limits of his double mandate were very clear: first, to seek improvements in the Palestinian economy, and second, to help Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, to create the foundations of a new state, including its security forces. Inevitably, Blair’s success would depend partly on the progress of peace talks over which he had no control. The local image of the Blair mission in the region is now much better. The team, mainly young, is now considered excellent. The head of mission, Gary Grappo, is a former US envoy to Baghdad. His deputy, Daniel Arghiros, is a former civil servant from the department for international development; Rami Dajani, a member of an old Jerusalem Palestinian family, is a highly respected member of the Negotiations Support Unit; Charles Steel, a high-flying British venture capitalist, has travelled extensively in the Arab world and is now bringing investment to Palestinian East Jerusalem; and Tim Williams is a former expert at the UN Relief and Works Agency. Williams’s appointment is particularly interesting. He knows more about West Bank checkpoints than perhaps any other UN official. He was attracted to the Blair team because he believed it had more chance of getting the barriers lifted than did the UN agency, regarded with suspicion by Israel. Blair’s entrée to the Israeli leadership has arguably made his mission the “go to” agency for NGOs and others struggling to lift the checkpoints that inflict hardship on everyday Palestinian life. Without doubt, the mission’s efforts have borne some fruit. Blair’s team regards his main achievement as the easing of Israel’s economic blockade on Gaza, imposed after Hamas seized total internal control of the zone by force in 2007. The Palestinian Papers quote Blair saying in February 2008 that the siege was “the wrong policy and needs to be changed immediately.” Throughout 2008 and 2009, he tried—and failed—to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, that the blockade was hurting ordinary people while actually helping Hamas. The Islamist group was creaming off revenue from smuggling to Egypt, recruiting the unemployed, and promoting the businesses of its supporters at the expense of established manufacturers, who were unable to export or bring in materials. Then in May last year came the Israeli naval raid which killed nine Turks aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, and brought calls from around the world for Israel to lift the blockade. According to one senior diplomat, Blair was initially hesitant to make a move, doubtful whether the incident would be enough to provoke a change of heart in the Netanyahu government. It was William Hague, foreign secretary, who helped persuade other European governments and the US to dispatch Blair to try to get Netanyahu to relent. “[Blair] was reluctant at first,” the diplomat said, “but then he did a great job, probably one only he could do.” Not everyone agreed, of course, noting that the only immediate change was an increase in the import of consumer goods to Israel. But by persuading Netanyahu to substitute a “blacklist” of imports banned on security grounds for a “white list” of goods which were permitted, Blair established, in principle, an important reversal to the policy of imposing hardships collectively on Gazans. The shift paved the way for further gradual easing, allowing some raw materials into Gaza, and then some finished goods, such as clothing and furniture, to go out. There has also been an improvement in daily life in the West Bank, chiefly in its cities, which have regained a semblance of normality. That is thanks in large part to the improved security brought about by US and British-trained Palestinian forces, praised in hard-headed analyses by the World Bank. To take one resonant symbol: the hated Hawara checkpoint, deep within the West Bank—one which arguably never contributed much to Israeli security—is no longer shut for most adult males seeking to travel out of Nablus. Journeys to Ramallah (and north to Jenin) are easier. Israeli Arabs are free to travel to Nablus and Jenin to shop and visit relatives. Parts of Ramallah outside the refugee camps are showing signs of a foreign-funded boom. As a result, the Palestinian economy grew by 8 per cent during 2010. Blair can take some credit, though not all. Before Netanyahu became prime minister he was pursuing the goal of an “economic peace,” although he appeared to regard this as an alternative to a political agreement, rather than a precursor as Blair does. But Blair had then, as now, talked to him about ways to improve the economic life of Palestinians without endangering Israeli security. At times, however, the frustrations have strained Blair’s self-imposed taboo on open criticism of Israel. Blair has also negotiated the entry of a new company, Wataniya, to break the monopoly of the Palestinian mobile phone company Jawwal, despite the opposition of the Israeli government and its two main mobile phone companies (and some vested Palestinian interests). The new company has the potential to create thousands of jobs, although Blair has still to persuade Israel to grant the extra frequency which would make it fly. And Rawabi, the attractive new Palestinian town near Ramallah, still awaits Israeli permission for a necessary access road; Israeli settlers are vigorously opposing it, ostensibly on the grounds of security. But as someone who knew Netanyahu as a prime ministerial contemporary, Blair has clearly had an influence in helping to improve Palestinian lives. Equally, Blair argues that his other role of assembling the basis for a working state helps to reassure Israelis that they might eventually have a neighbour who does not threaten them with terrorism. A wide range of commentators—including key elements of the Israeli military—accepts that with international help, including from the Blair team, Fayyad has made great strides on security and police. Blair still believes that most Israelis would back a peace deal, provided they were sure of their own security, although he concedes that supporters of the West Bank settlers would not. He has often told his team that “what I want to do is to make it impossible [for Israelis] to oppose a deal other than on ideological grounds.” ***** Blair’s other argument has been that no Palestinian leader could deliver a peace deal until he had almost built the apparatus of a new state. Every peace plan has assumed that the Palestinian leadership would have to abandon the idea of refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon returning to Israel in anything but token numbers, albeit in exchange for massive compensation. To make that concession—which would be seen as abandoning the “right of return”—without securing the great prize of a Palestinian state could be the death of any leader, politically if not literally. But Blair’s mission has been undermined by a serious problem: its lack of influence over the deep-frozen peace process. A senior military officer on the US-led team which is training Palestinian security forces said recently in private that he noted a falling off in the keenness of some of the members as the peace process ran into the ground. These are men who see themselves, proudly, as the guardians of a state that is about to be born, and are crucial to any deal. In Blair’s own words, the project of building a state could start “rolling backwards.” A second problem is that economic progress is no guarantee of peace. The first and second intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000, each started on the upturn of an economic cycle. To suggest that, after 43 years of occupation, Palestinians have no national aspirations beyond feeding their families would be not only offensive but a grave strategic error. That is surely why Blair has been increasingly active beyond his remit, venturing into the politics, even if informally. Just before Christmas, he flew to Jerusalem on a mission from Hillary Clinton to deliver the message that, since Netanyahu refused to commit to a settlement freeze, he needed to offer measures to persuade the Palestinians to talk to Israel again. The move—one of seven visits Blair made to Israel in as many weeks—finally resulted in the package which he agreed with Netanyahu on 4th February. These included some 20 infrastructure projects in Gaza, an increased Palestinian police presence in the West Bank Area B, outside the area of direct Palestinian control, and two small but symbolic housing developments in east Jerusalem. Blair knew that this alone would not get the talks going. Through his long friendship with Hillary Clinton, and by now enjoying a kind of intimacy with Netanyahu and his coalition partner Ehud Barak, Blair set about persuading the Israeli leadership that the US was not giving up on the process. Irrepressibly optimistic as ever, he had told everyone that although Netanyahu has problems with his right wing, “he gets” that a two-state deal with the Palestinians is the only sensible solution. But Blair now pointed out to Israel that it was running a huge risk with US support. Despairing of fruitful negotiations, the Palestinians were contemplating a UN security council resolution condemning settlement building as illegal, in terms that could only embarrass the US if it exercised its veto. The US was not happy with the Palestinian move—but it was no happier with Israel for putting it in an exposed position. Blair warned Netanyahu that if he did not do enough to bring the Palestinians back to talks, then Obama might produce his own version of a deal. Blair had sought with considerable success to convince the Israelis that he was “on their side”—but he was also, as usual, on the Americans’ side too. This was supposed to come to a head at the Munich Quartet meeting on 5th February, but was deferred until March because of the region’s turmoil. The “Palestinian Papers,” though over-hyped by both al-Jazeera and the Guardian, made the Palestinian leadership even more jittery, while the crisis in Egypt absorbed Washington, and alarmed both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which regarded Mubarak as a staunch ally. Mubarak’s exit has shaken the kaleidoscope, to borrow a phrase of which Blair is fond. Blair adopted a high media profile during the uprising—and a controversial one. He defended Mubarak’s record on the Israel-Palestine peace process, and warned that the risk of the Muslim Brotherhood triumphing in a democratic election was too great to allow an unseemly rush to the polls. He has called for elections to be held under the aegis of international “partnership.” That warning inevitably recalled the dilemma over the 2006 election victory of Hamas, originally an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Blair, as prime minister, joined with other western leaders in refusing to deal with the group. But the Muslim Brotherhood had not led the Egyptian protests; nor were most experts predicting they would win the elections. Blair’s point about allowing time for other parties to organise was understandable. But the remarks had a ring of paternalism about them. They gave too little credit to the liberal democratic traditions of pre-dictatorship Egypt. It also implied a defensiveness about the failure of Mubarak’s staunch allies in the west—Britain and Blair included—to press on the autocrat the need to reform. The Egyptian crisis represents a failure of a western policy that has treated human rights and democracy as an appendage to other goals. That has now exacted an exemplary penalty. Blair’s many enemies in London sometimes talk as if it would be better if he failed because he is, after Iraq, the “wrong” person to succeed in helping resolve one of the world’s most resonant conflicts. But despite Blair’s many commitments across the world, he has worked harder and with more engagement on the Palestinian issue—sometimes in grinding detail—than is often credited. And he has had significant success. He has steadily argued for the importance of perseverance in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He maintains peace in Israel would make it easier for Arab leaders to pursue democracy while resisting Islamic fundamentalism; they would have an end to an endless provocation for militants, and might even have an example of a working Arab democracy as inspiration. There is much in this. But as Blair surely knows, the odds of a breakthrough remain, to put it mildly, in the balance. So do, then, the chances of leaving a personal legacy in the Middle East to outweigh Iraq. Blair has always had a Manichean tendency to divide the world between dark and benevolent forces—his latest division being (once again) that between “modernisers” and forces of fundamentalist “reaction.” Yet in the Egyptian crisis it was surely the uprising that was the force for modernisation. Unless Blair forcefully says that, he risks seeming not a force for reform, but on the wrong side of the passion which moved the hundreds of thousands of people who made their revolutionary base in Tahrir Square.

In an exclusive interview for Prospect, Tony Blair says that building the foundations for a Palestinian state is the best way to pursue peace with Israel. To listen to a longer version of the interview, click hereDONALD MACINTYRE: What have you learned? TONY BLAIR: One of the most shocking things is how much more I know about this now. I thought intensively and in a detailed way [about it] when I was prime minister, but I have a hugely advanced understanding of it now. DM: Haven’t you picked a lost cause in Israel-Palestine? TB: My perspective is that it isn’t, but even if it looks as if it could be, it is so important that you’ve got to struggle for it. People did say that Northern Ireland was a lost cause. There isn’t a solution other than an independent viable Palestinian state and a secure state of Israel. The overwhelming desire of both sides, plus the international community, is to get an agreement. DM: Is there a view in Israel that Arabs aren’t really interested in the Palestinian issue? TB: That’s a total misreading. Arab nations, who are trying to develop their countries, are faced with an Islamism that is extreme and reactionary, and is being stoked, financed and occasionally armed by Iran. It is hugely in their interest to get progress for the Palestinians, the one issue that can radicalise those less susceptible to radicalisation. For the Arab street it is incredibly important to have progress. There is not a single Arab leader I talk to who doesn’t see [part of the answer to] concern about Iran lying in progress on the Palestinian issue. DM: Don’t you get frustrated by how difficult it is to get change from the Israelis that will improve Palestinian daily life? TB: Yes. Sometimes the pace can be glacial. But it can move. If you compare the access and movement [of Palestinians] today to three years ago when I came (and I spent the first year with people saying it’s got worse) it is significantly better. When people think it’s bizarre that I work [to get rid of] chunks of concrete put across roads, I say to them, it matters. In Northern Ireland, we had a real problem with taking down British security outposts [which] hugely disrupted the life of the population. These things matter because they affect people’s sense of dignity and justice. DM: You said recently that if things don’t move here within weeks, really, then we’re in big trouble. What kind of trouble? TB: The new Israeli government has said, for understandable reasons, look, we want to start our own process. But the Palestinians want to start where the last Israeli government left off. So the question has been how do you make this negotiation credible? The moratorium on settlements is one way. But for all the reasons we know, it fell apart. Time is very short now [because] either the parties, particularly Israel, give credibility to this process or the international community will be left with an impasse. DM: There is a view in Israel that Barack Obama has given up on Israel-Palestine. TB: That’s also a mistake. It is a priority for Obama. In identifying this as a strategic interest for America, he chose his words very carefully. But if he feels he can’t make progress, because you can’t make the parties negotiate, that will lead him to say, “Well, I can’t just leave this hanging.” That’s why I think the US will try to move this. DM: So is this the missing piece for you in your efforts with George W Bush [over] Iraq? TB: There is a difference between saying that, and saying it’s a piece of unfinished business to do with the whole picture of what I believe in. There is a huge struggle of modernisation of which this dispute is part. If you can get an Israeli state that is a homeland for Jewish people, next to an independent state of Palestine, you’re going to send an enormous boost to the forces of modernisation. Likewise, rejectionism is a boost to the forces of reaction. Sometimes I find myself in an odd position, because I’m probably the only person at a certain level who spends time in Israeli and in Palestinian politics. I find that you do have to explain Israel’s perspective, because people say: “They’re just being completely unreasonable, they just want to grab all the land.” It’s not quite like that. The challenge for the Israeli prime minister arises from events set in train in 2000. Each side has its own narrative about these ten years, and each is completely different. The Israeli narrative is essentially that they made a reasonable offer, that it was turned down, that it would have provided a Palestinian state on ’67 borders with land swaps, that following the breakdown of talks they got the intifada. A thousand Israelis died, and of course thousands more Palestinians. Then under [Ariel] Sharon, they decided to get out of Gaza and so, in their eyes, “lift” the occupation, take the 7,000 settlers with them, and then they got Hamas and rockets. The rise of Avigdor Lieberman [the right-wing foreign minister] comes out of that, which is to say, you know, no one’s tough enough on security. I believe the centre of gravity in Israeli politics is still where Sharon left off. I think the majority of Israelis want a leader who’s tough on security but who’s going to deliver peace. The Palestinians, of course, have a different narrative: that the Israelis have never taken the steps needed to lift the occupation and that Hamas benefits [from this]. DM: It seems quite kind to Lieberman to suggest that he merely represents the genuine security concerns of Israelis. TB: I’m not saying I’m supporting what he’s saying, but I’m explaining his rise. DM: I don’t imagine as prime minister you would have kept a foreign secretary who went off to the UN general assembly and totally contradicted government policy, would you? TB: I’ll pass on that one, I think. The state-building exercise will deliver us to the destination, in my view. But if the politics stalls then [Palestinian leaders] would come under powerful attack from their opponents, saying “you’re not delivering us a state, you’re propping up the occupation.” DM: A lot of Israelis are worried that Hamas will get the credit for improving life in Gaza. TB: There are very good reasons for trying to help people in Gaza. If you want them to have a stake in a peace process, do not degrade their living conditions. Israel’s got a perfect right to take measures to protect its security. [But] the last time I checked the figures, 20 per cent of the population of Gaza was under the age of four, so there’s just the basic reason for helping people, which is to be humane. I never believed that improving conditions in Gaza helped Hamas, because it’s obvious that Hamas is not delivering it. DM: Where does Gaza fit into a peace process in which Hamas has no part? TB: The key is to get a credible process moving with change on the ground. My view is that people in Gaza will demand to be part of that. Then Hamas has got a choice to make. I’ve no doubt that the majority of people will support the Palestinian Authority if there’s a serious process that’s going to lead to peace.
Also in Prospect's middle east special: Is Arab democracy a fantasy?: The revolutions of 2011 have proven that Arab culture is not incompatible with democracy. But the quest for freedom is far from complete, writes Eugene RoganArab democracy: A family affairGetting rid of the head of state is one thing, standing up to the head of your family quite another, argues Shereen El Feki Time for quiet idealism:The Arab upheaval shows that we should promote our values—up to a point, writes David Davis