Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Gaza: quiet success for Tony Blair

There is, of course, more than one "Middle East envoy" at work on the problems of Israel-Palestine. George Mitchell, appointed by President Obama, heads the effort to bring Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table, and has just initiated the fourth round of so-called "proximity talks", still on track despite the débacle of the Gaza freedom flotilla episode. Then there's Tony Blair.

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.

But 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, over the past two years the West Bank’s economy has flourished. 2009 saw a growth rate of 6.8% according to the World Bank, some 6000 new jobs have been created, trade with Israel is up by more than 80% and agricultural exports by over 200%. But the World Bank, while recognising the considerable advances, is far from endorsing the idea that an economic boom is under way. Blair has been beavering away, largely behind the scenes, encouraging development 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, as Blair told David Frost in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV, was done in the interests of creating a credible atmosphere in which to launch renewed peace negotiations – an enterprise that finally resulted in a positive outcome.

So what part has Tony Blair been playing in this week's developments on the Gaza scene?

Middle East observers will have noted that in the days immediately following the Mavi Marmara incident, Tony Blair had no less than three meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Then, on Monday 14 June, he flew to Luxembourg to brief EU foreign ministers. Following that session, he told the Press that he hoped the blockade would “be eased within days.”

The key, Blair said, “is to shift from a list of goods that are permitted into Gaza to a list of goods that are prohibited from entering, such as weapons and combat material, so that anything that is not on the list of prohibited items is allowed to enter. The prohibition on the entry of weapons and combat material should of course remain in place, and Israel is justified in seeking to check items that go into Gaza to ensure that such items are kept out.”

Blair said that after holding intensive talks with Netanyahu, he believed that “Israel has agreed in principle to move to such a list.”

And so it has proved to be, as PM Netanhayu has himself acknowledged.

Without making a great song and dance about it, Tony Blair has been going about the business of fostering goodwill and helping create an atmosphere in which peaceful intentions, if they exist, can be pursued. A high-ranking official of the Israeli foreign ministry has 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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