Saturday, 16 January 2010

Tony - or Little by Little

It’s two-and-a half years since Tony Blair took up the role of envoy to the Middle East on behalf of “the Quartet” – the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. On the day he was officially confirmed in post – the 27th of June 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 Tony Blair's credibility as an impartial peacemaker, given the controversy already raging about Britain's key role in the invasion of Iraq.

What has Blair achieved over the past 30 months? According to a piece in today's Daily Telegraph (London), the whole exercise has been little more than a costly "ego trip". It castigates him for failing to keep sufficiently in touch with British ministers, given that his function and support staff are funded to the extent of some £600,000 a year from the British taxpayer.

All the same, and despite this financial support, one can't help wondering whether continuous briefing of British ministers about his activities ought to form a major part of his working life, given that he is representing the United Nations, the EU, the USA and Russia.

From the moment he took up the post Blair has stressed the need to create conditions that would allow the launch of credible negotiations. He seems to be pursuing a twin track towards this objective: on the one hand striving for a more unified position within Palestinian politics, and on the other building a viable future Palestinian state through encouragement of the West Bank economy. And indeed, as I say in my very first blog below ("The End in Sight"), over the past two years the West Bank’s economy has flourished – the World Bank predicts that 2009 will have seen a 5% increase; other sources suggest a growth rate of as much as 7%. Some 6000 new jobs have been created, trade with Israel is up by more than 80% and agricultural exports by over 200%.

But according to an Israeli official, during his time as envoy Blair has been involving himself not only in the larger picture, but also in the detail of individual projects – such as the sewage system in Gaza, tourism in Bethlehem, improving the mobile phone system in the West Bank.

All this, Blair told David Frost in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV last week, has been done in the interests of creating a credible atmosphere in which to launch renewed peace negotiations. And positive action on that front seems well under way. Last Tuesday Tony Blair attended a meeting with the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, and with Lady Ashton, the newly appointed EU foreign policy chief (or "high representative", as she is officially and ludicrously titled) with the aim of restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority.

Two days ago a high-ranking official of the Israeli foreign ministry said: "When in another 100 years they write a book about the history of the Middle East, Blair's name will proudly appear in it."

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