Friday, 20 February 2015

Tony Blair's flawed peace plan

            On Sunday, February 15, 2015 Tony Blair visited Gaza.
            It is nearly eight years since Blair took up the role of envoy to the Middle East on behalf of “the Quartet” (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia). On the day he was officially confirmed in post – June 27, 2007, the very day he resigned as UK Prime Minister – the White House announced that both Israel and the Palestinians had signed up to the appointment.

Other voices – not all of them from the Arab world – expressed varying degrees of scepticism about his credibility as an impartial peacemaker, given the controversy already raging about Britain's key role in the invasion of Iraq.  But he threw himself into the job, stressing from the start the two main conditions that he believed would allow the launch of credible negotiations – a more unified position within Palestinian politics, and developing the West Bank economy.

What has he achieved? In February 2015 Palestinian politics are no more unified than when Blair took on his role, nor is the West Bank economy more flourishing.  It would, though, be fair to say that despite his best efforts – and he certainly strove hard, especially in the early days – it is events beyond his control that have frustrated his good intentions. The past eight years have seen cataclysmic changes within the Middle East, and it has been a roller-coaster of a ride as far as the Israel-Palestinian conflict is concerned.

As for the Quartet itself, since the start in July 2013 of the well-intentioned, but eventually abortive, peace effort led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, it has been in virtual hibernation. Early last month, however, the US envoy to the UN, Samantha Powers, unexpectedly announced a lower-level meeting of representatives of the Quartet members. Commentators were quick to speculate that this might indicate a move by the US to reinvigorate the dormant group.

          The statement issued after the meeting seems to justify this interpretation.  It reported that the representatives had explored what the Quartet could do to support the resumption of meaningful negotiations leading to a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. Noting the importance of engaging closely with (unspecified) “Arab partners”, the one matter they agreed on was the importance of convening a meeting of the Quartet Principals as soon as possible.

It is against this background that Tony Blair ventured into Gaza last week for the first time in more than five years.  Having met with members of the Palestinian unity government and various business, community and UN workers, he returned to issue his conclusions about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  “We need a new approach to Gaza and a new approach to peace,” he wrote.  And he proceeded to analyse the obstacles to peace, as he sees them, and a proposed approach to overcoming them.

His first, and valid, point is that the “on-the-ground-reality”, as he puts it, is not conducive to peace: ”indeed the opposite.”  Accordingly he sets out three pre-conditions for a successful peace process, and they are not all that different from how he saw the issues back in 2007.  First, he says, because the economy on the West Bank has stalled, there needs to be a dramatic improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians.  A second requirement, now as then, is what he terms “unified Palestinian politics” on a basis that is explicitly in favour of peace and two states, Palestine and Israel.  A third is an enhanced role for the region, in alliance with the international community, which must step up to share leadership of the issue.

But there is an elephant in the room, which Blair pointedly ignores. It is not, as might be thought, the irreconcilable differences between Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip, and Fatah which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), even though these differences are deep and long-standing (there is abundant evidence that Hamas aspires to topple PA President Mahmoud Abbas and take over the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza).  On the contrary, the overwhelming obstacle to effective peace negotiations is the basic accord between Hamas and the PA on the desired outcome to the Israel-Palestine stand-off.

The two wings of the Palestinian body politic agree on one matter: eventually achieving a sovereign Palestine “from the river to the sea” that is, shorn of Israel.  Hamas is perhaps the more honest in its intentions, since it utterly rejects the two-state solution and declares itself at war with Israel.  As for Fatah, although Abbas has spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution, the charter of the Fatah party states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people.  Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win it back. Given these founding beliefs of his party, Abbas’s tactic of supporting the two-state solution – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – pretty obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine.

This underlying reality explains why every attempt to negotiate a resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute has failed. In the final analysis no Palestinian leader has dared to sign up to a two-state solution, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause.

This factor Tony Blair ignores, and perhaps he is right to do so. If Abbas were indeed ever brought to the point of appending his signature to a peace agreement, he would need to have been totally supported by those unspecified “Arab friends” (namely the majority of the Arab League, who remain committed to their own peace plan).  Even then he would be playing ducks and drakes with his own life.  

When Blair considers Hamas, though, he asks for clarification of what is already patently clear. “Are they prepared to accept a Palestinian State within 1967 borders or not,” he asks, “with such a State being a final settlement to the conflict? If they are,” he declares, “that would allow the international community to promote reconciliation alongside reconstruction.”

What Blair does not pursue is what the international community should do if as Hamas have declared again and again they are not. And there, as Shakespeare succinctly puts it, is the rub.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 February 2015:

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