Blair: Arab view of deal close to Israel's

Blair tells 'Post' accord possible in 2008; blames Israel for failing to improve Palestinian economy.

blair exclusive 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
blair exclusive 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Arab world truly wants the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved urgently, and many Arab leaders back terms for a permanent accord "very close to what Israel is wanting," Quartet peace envoy Tony Blair told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend. "I spend a lot of time talking to the Arabs," said Blair. "I have a genuine belief, and this is not shared by everyone in Israel: The Arabs genuinely want this settled now. There were Arab leaders, I don't want to say which, talking to me recently about the type of settlement, the type of agreement which they would accept. I would say it is very close to what Israel is wanting and on some of the most sensitive questions." Although Blair preferred not to identify which leaders he was referring to, he went on to speak about leaders in "Gulf and Arab states," and especially the younger leadership generation, who "want to be on the cutting edge of globalization; they want to be 21st century economies. And they realize their politics and their culture have got to start coming into synch with their economies." Blair described the Arab world as being "in transition." The question, he said, was what it would "transition into": either this modern, globalized, cutting edge vision or the Islamists' "battle to the death" against "the West and its allies including Israel." The would-be modernizers, he said, regard solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "as an important part in making sure that their vision beats the other vision." At a time when even Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad is saying that he does not believe a permanent accord can be reached this year, Blair remained insistent that the Annapolis timetable was "doable," provided there was sufficient "urgency, focus, determination and strategy." He faulted Israel for not acting with sufficient urgency to speed up a range of economic projects that could immediately benefit Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. He also asserted that freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank could be improved without compromising Israeli security. He said he was encouraged that the West Bank economy was now showing gradual growth. "It is limited and small, but it is there." And on the matter of PA security control, he noted that limited improvements in the Nablus area meant he had now been able to visit the city (on Thursday) whereas just months ago it would have been too dangerous. "The governor of Nablus was describing to me a situation where this time last year there were armed gangs going into his predecessor's office, shooting the place up. That's not happening now." At the same time, the former British prime minister said he completely understood that Israel could not dramatically ease its own security precautions in the West Bank for fear of an immediate upsurge in violence. But "no one is asking for a dramatic easing [of security controls]. People are asking for a step-by-step easing, as the Palestinians show step-by-step capability. "Now the Palestinians have to do a lot more on this," Blair went on. The PA had to properly plan and fund a security overhaul, retrain its security forces, "pension off" those who were unfit - "in other words, to start operating like the Jordanians operate. They are a way off that, which is why I'm not sitting here saying there should be a dramatic easing. But there can be some." Obviously, Blair elaborated, Israel insisted on checkpoints for people leaving Nablus "because of what happened" - a reference to suicide bombers and other terrorist attackers dispatched from the city. But he suggested that the checkpoints could be more efficient - "a lot quicker, a lot better... particularly for people who are trying to do business." Blair said he had been speaking to businesspeople who were routinely held up for hours at checkpoints, and that this undermined any optimism about a viable diplomatic process. "At the moment, if Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] stands up in front of them and says, 'Actually guys, we're going to have a state,' they'd say, 'You must be joking.'"