Analysis: Blair needs to find consensus on Mideast policy

Whether you agree with his politics or not, few politicians in the world have the intelligence or the tenacity of Tony Blair.

blair walks 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
blair walks 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet's Middle East envoy makes sense at a number of levels. First, for years Blair has been stressing the importance of finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that adds fuel to the jihadist cause the world over. Second, in addition to personal commitment, Blair has the necessary experience to fulfill the role of mediator. Consider here his sterling performance in the Northern Ireland peace process - a conflict that was often labelled intractable. Third, after serving as British prime minister for 10 years, he brings the necessary gravitas to the position as envoy. Moreover, he already knows many of the actors in the conflict personally, something that will facilitate his mission greatly. Having said this, one cannot help but think that Blair faces an arduous task on a number of fronts. Blair's appointment caused great dissatisfaction within certain members of the Quartet. Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, was reportedly unhappy with Blair's appointment; Blair's successor as UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, expressed disquiet with the appointment since it would be difficult for London to formulate their own foreign policy relating to the Middle East with Blair as the Quartet's envoy; and Russia demanded last minute changes to the terms of reference of Blair's appointment. Of all these actors, Blair perhaps needs to be most careful of Moscow. Relations between Putin's Russia and the West are at an all time low - the latest spat being over the missile defense system that the US wishes to construct in Eastern Europe. Relations between London and Moscow have also deteriorated following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a severe critic of the Kremlin who lived in London, and Britain's subsequently charging Andre Lugovoi, a Soviet-era spy, with the murder. Moscow has made it plain that it will follow a more independent foreign policy. In practice, this policy has been more about playing the role of spoiler than actually contributing to international peace and security. Note here Moscow's arms sales to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Russia was also the only member of the Quartet to have invited Hamas to their country. For Blair to be successful in his new role, he needs a consensus among the Quartet on Middle East policy. The second set of challenges that Blair faces lies in establishing his credentials in the Arab world as a man of peace. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum encapsulated this neatly when he said, "Blair, who supported the American occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, may not be a man of peace." The best way to overcome such attitudes is to ensure that political compromise, reciprocity and tolerance of the other is seen to pay dividends. The end of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the removal of the various checkpoints and getting sufficient amounts of aid to serve as a catalyst for real economic development in the Palestinian territories would help tremendously in eliciting the necessary Palestinian goodwill in support of the peace process. Here it is important to note that Blair job is not to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather to prepare the groundwork for an eventual peace settlement between the sides. Blair also comes in at a time when we have witnessed a de facto split of the Palestinian territories into two separate states - Gaza controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank under Fatah. Hamas has already rejected Blair's appointment as the Quartet's envoy. How should Blair respond? He has a good working relationship with the Palestinian Authority under Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as well as with the Israelis under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the support of many neighboring Arab states that have a vested interest in an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Blair should work with these actors in creating a stable and prosperous Palestinian entity on the West Bank. Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians will soon witness the merits of a policy of moderation and political compromise, and hopefully will wish to emulate the success of the West Bank. My guess is that this will happen sooner rather than later. Within the Middle East, outside of Iran and Syria, Hamas is politically isolated. More importantly, outside empty militant rhetoric, they have nothing to offer the people of Gaza. It is obvious that Blair is aware of the monumental challenges that lie before him. In his last address to the British Parliament, he made clear his belief that a two-state solution was possible, "but that it will require a huge intensity of focus and work." Whether you agree with his politics or not, few politicians in the world have the intelligence or the tenacity of Tony Blair. If anyone can deliver Middle East peace, it is he. Prof. Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, where he is also director of the Center for International Political Studies.