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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Middle East envoy Tony Blair on Sunday urged Israel to make a "psychological shift" from indifference and skepticism about the prospects of progress with the Palestinians to an active determination to "make it happen on the right terms."
He said Israel, which turns 60 in May, would "absolutely" still be here in another 60 years, but that "to guarantee its long-term security I believe it needs a viable Palestinian state."
If Israelis feel the same, Blair told The Jerusalem Post, then "the psychological shift that has to happen in the Israeli thinking is to move from saying, 'Well, if it happens, it happens, but frankly I'm skeptical about the whole thing,' to saying, 'Okay, I'm going to try and make it happen.'"
He said he was "sure that the Prime Minister [Ehud Olmert] is absolutely up for it. I've got no doubt about that at all. The next few weeks will tell whether everyone is prepared to get behind that."
At the same time, however, Blair stressed Israel should not "yield" at all on security. And he stopped short of expressing full confidence that the Palestinian leadership, under Mahmoud Abbas, was capable of carrying out the necessary reform to meet Israel's vital security needs.
It was "not impossible" for the Palestinians to transform themselves into the kind of "stable partner for Israel" that Jordan constitutes, he said. But the new Palestinian leadership is living "with a very long legacy from the past," Blair said, in a reference to the Yasser Arafat era. The question for Abbas and his colleagues was, "Do they break out of that whole mindset? Do they regard themselves as people who are going to take the risks, shoulder the responsibility and get it done or not?... All I say to Israelis," he went on, "is, well, put it to the test... What is the alternative?" Blair said he fully understood that Israel's mistrust of the Palestinian leadership was a consequence of bitter experience. Indeed, he had been telling critics of Israel that, in the light of what went wrong in the Oslo years and in the wake of the Gaza disengagement, he too, were he leading Israel, would be wary of dramatic territorial withdrawal and giving the Palestinians' statehood. "When you're saying to [Israel], 'We now want you to pull out of everywhere and give [the Palestinians] a state, you know, any of us who were in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister or any Israeli minister would be saying 'Whoa.'"
Nonetheless, he went on, "the danger in this situation, if I can be very blunt about it, is that you say 'There have been 60 years of failure of negotiation and therefore it's always going to fail,' whereas actually sometimes things aren't like that. And to be fair to this Palestinian leadership, as I keep emphasizing, they're living with the legacy of a certain type of politics and you don't escape from that immediately."
Asked whether Abbas was prepared to renounce the "right of return" and to take other viable final status positions, the former British prime minister said, "It's not for me to negotiate for Abbas, but I think Abbas knows exactly what he needs to do to have a proper final status negotiation." He added that the respective final-status positions of the two sides were such that "it is possible to see how an agreement could be reached... In my view the Palestinians are prepared to be realistic, sensible and focused in agreeing those terms in the final status negotiations."
Crucial though he considered the diplomatic track leading to the planned Annapolis gathering, Blair stressed that an international donors conference scheduled for Paris in December was "every bit as important," since it is there that the Palestinians are supposed to produce "a medium-term strategy" for reform of their security and other institutions.
Blair, 54, who has been making frequent visits to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders since taking up the post of Quartet envoy in June, was interviewed by the Post during a whirlwind 24-hour trip. While much of the conversation naturally focused on his efforts to work with the Palestinians on institution-building, his primary task as envoy, he also set out hard-hitting positions on the battle against Islamic extremism, the root causes of terror, and the need to stand firm against Iran.
He stressed that he did not believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the cause of attacks such as the 2005 London public transport bombings, and neither were the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This terrorism is not our fault," he said. It needed to be fought through a combination of military action where necessary and "a galvanizing idea that is more powerful" than the extremists' message. "And that idea is not simply about freedom and democracy, though it should be about that, but also about justice," he said.
"The trouble with a large part of the Western world is that we're in a state of semi-apology the whole time, and that's an absolutely hopeless position from which to take this thing on... A large part of public opinion in the West is basically saying, 'We have caused this. It's our fault they're like this.' I just think that's nonsense."
He said he had personally found himself "in profound disagreement with a large part of public opinion" in Britain on this, "which is tough." But he felt it was better to hold to his positions than to embrace what he considered misguided policies. "If you look at the posture of much of the Western world on Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, "it is, 'If you come after us really, really hard, we'll give up.' I mean, how do you win a battle from that perspective?"
Blair said he was "completely on the hard side of the argument in terms of staying the course" in Iraq and in the wider battle against terrorism. This was why, he said, "I get your security situation completely. If I was you, I would not yield on security at all. That's not my point. My point is a different one: If a Palestinian state is ultimately in your long-term interest for reasons of security, you should try and make it happen on the right terms."
As for Iran, Blair was blunt: "The tougher we are, actually the easier it will be... What they need to know is that the international community is united, strong and determined that they should not have a nuclear weapons capability and they should not continue to support terrorism."
(The full interview with Tony Blair will appear in the Post later this week.)