blair and the middle east

Posted on June 26, 2007


Tony Blair is in a hurry to leave British politics altogether.

Besides leaving his post as the prime minister of the UK today, he will also quit his job as a member of parliament in his Sedgefield constituency.

He’s moving on to a major diplomatic job, which his credentials as the prime minister that brought peace to the Northern Ireland conflict that killed over three thousand and dragged on for decades, proved helpful in helping him secure. He is going to be the Middle East envoy, representing the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators: the US, UN, European Union and Russia, with a salary of reportedly some 120,000 pounds per annum.

Blair had been quoted saying that the Middle East peace process needs to be micro-managed in the same way that he handled the Northern Ireland peace process. He will soon get his wish to be that micro-manager.

But will he be as successful in dealing with a hugely intractable Palestinian issue? It’s going to be a tough rough ahead for Blair.

His main duties involve working with the Palestinians over security, economy and governance. Given the situation on the ground, it will largely mean shoring up Mahmud Abbas’ Fatah government, which has lost power in Gaza to its bitter rival, the radical Islamist Hamas party. But it would also likely mean trying to bring about unity between the two estranged groups — no easy task for anybody, even someone with a gifted touch at communicating like Blair.

On the plus side, Blair is considered a friend by both the Palestinians and Israelis. Israel had promised full cooperation if Blair was appointed as the Quartet’s envoy.

Blair had also had a tradition of supporting the Palestinian cause, being able to boast of strong relations with the late Yasser Arafat and had the distinction of being one of the first Western leaders to endorse the “two-state solution,” which relates to a Palestinian state co-existing in peace with Israel.

Fahmi al-Zaarer, a spokesman for Abbas’ Fatah movement, said Palestinians would welcome Blair. “We believe that Mr. Blair’s efforts would help … revive the political process,” he said, according to an AP report.

But much obstacles lie before Blair, with some even saying that his job is hopeless.

Many Palestinians had expressed scepticism at Blair’s new posting.

For one, Blair’s appointment is known to have been pushed mightily by the US, which lobbied the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon hard.

That isn’t going to change the opinion that Blair is still in the US government’s pocket and dispel the mistrust they have about Blair’s independence. Palestinians are also likely to see Blair as working more on the side of the Israelis, with his closeness to the US.

It’s no easy task Blair is taking on, and one that isn’t likely to be solved just by talk. Blair, unfortunately, is no doubt impressively good at talking but critics have pointed out often that he is more style than substance. And talk isn’t going to be enough to bring about the peace that’s needed.

The envoy job is also bound to be highly frustrating and Blair might find himself working hard but having nothing to show for it even after a period of time. Others that have tried and failed include former US president Bill Clinton, who’s no slouch in the diplomatic arena. Blair’s predecessor in the position, James Wolfensohn, reportedly resigned out of frustration after barely a year on the job.

The final most imposing question is — do the Israelis and Palestinians want peace as much as the Quartet or anyone else? At the end of the day, if the two central players cannot surmount the entrenched level of acrimony and don’t have the will to come to an agreement, it would all be futile for anyone else trying to get them to stop fighting. Blair will have to slog for his money and certainly has his work cut out for him.

But if that doesn’t work out, Blair certainly has other fall-back plans — the lecture circuit and writing his memoirs, which will no doubt keep him busy and well-paid for a while yet.