The real dividing line in the Middle East is the battle against extremism – be it of the Sunni or Shi'a variety – and in this battle Israel's place should be with nations of the region “connected to the modern world, not in opposition,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday.
Blair, who following his tenure as British prime minister was also the Quartet envoy, made these comments at speech to the Herzliya Conference where he advocated a wider regional approach to solving the Israeli—Palestinian conflict. He noted that this was his 182nd trip to Israel.
“There exists today a new path to peace. It is based not only on conventional Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, but on the potential for a new relationship between the Arab nations and Israel,” he said. “It is an opportunity of unprecedented promise. We must grasp it with both hands.”
Having been involved in peace processes initiated by former president George W. Bush, Mideast envoy George Mitchell, and former US Secretary of State John Kerry, Blair said that the credibility of the peace process has been damaged because Palestinians have concluded that Israel is not serious about negotiating a Palestinian state, and Israelis have concluded the Palestinians are “incapable of running one consistent with Israel's security.”
“So the fundamental challenge is not a simply one of negotiation – borders, security etc. It is one of context, cultural acceptance and credibility,” he said.
But, he added, since the Arab Spring in 2011, “several elements have emerged which alter the regional context.”
The first is the realization that the battle is against extremism in the region. Secondly, he said, “a new generation of leaders is emerging who govern young and impatient populations and who know that their route to progress lies in opening up to the world in friendship. And in each of these countries, this leadership is showing courage and determination in making change.”
He noted a survey of Arab youth saying that the country most young Arabs would like to emulate is the United Arab Emirates.
“So we have the objective reason for a regional alliance; and the subjective leadership capable of delivering it,” he said. This does not mean, however, that the Palestinian issue is any less important.
While it is no secret that there are many forms of cooperation between Israel and the region, he said, the “key to a true relationship, where there is overt, public and strategic collaboration – what I call ‘above the table,’ not below it – remains the Palestinian question.”
Therefore, he said, a new way forward is needed, a way that integrates the regional approach with a traditional negotiation.
The engagement of the region would provide “the strength to help carry any peace process,” he said. “It gives the Israelis the comfort of knowing that the region as a whole stands behind any agreement with the Palestinians and offers Israel the huge prize of normalization.”
And, he added, it gives the Palestinians the reassurance that any agreement will be supported by the wider Arab and Muslim world and gives them local partners in the building of the Palestinian state. Crucially, it can help bring about the unification of Palestinian politics – an absolutely essential precondition of peace – but on a basis fully consistent with peace.”
To forge this path, he said, “we must break with some of the ‘theology’ of peacemaking which has become hallowed doctrine over the past 25 years.”
While he said that there can be no separate “economic peace” distinct from a political solution, he said that “measures on the ground, building peace from the bottom up, provide vital ballast to any political process.”
Blair called for a step-by step political process where confidence is built over time.
“This is not the same as so-called ‘interim solutions’ which Palestinians fear become permanent; it is rather a recognition, that without an organic evolution towards statehood, we are left with an ‘all or nothing’ position which so far has actually resulted not in ‘all’ but in nothing,” he said.
Likewise, he added, normalization between the Arab world and Israel “can be turned into a process rather than a one off event. Sensitivity to the politics of both Israelis and Arabs should lead us to create a set of inter-locking points where everyone gets comfortable that change is happening, but in a way which is manageable.”
Blair said that active Arab engagement in a traditional peace negotiation is necessary, not only Arab support for it. “I can tell you frankly from the conversations and interactions I have with those in the region as well as obviously those here in Israel that this regional approach is now, virtually by consensus, accepted as the right road to travel,” he said. “There is goodwill, a real sense of shared purpose and an appetite.”