Editor's Notes: Blair's flock

Blair didn't take this job to listen. He took it with every intention of sealing a deal.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Just four or so short years ago, the rulers of the kingdom to our east were feeling rather pleased with themselves. A decade after sealing their peace treaty with Israel, the Jordanians had unreservedly thrown in their lot with the US and, given the initial success enjoyed by the Americans in ousting Saddam Hussein's murderous Iraqi regime, they were confident that they'd made the right choice. The most senior figures in the Hashemite kingdom were known, at the time, to go so far as to ridicule their ostensibly short-sighted neighbors, the Syrians, for seeking to defy American will in our region, deriding the inexperienced President Bashar Assad for "swimming toward the sinking ship" of Saddam's Iraq. The Jordanians aren't feeling quite so confident or pleased with themselves nowadays. America's military presence in Iraq is the sinking ship now, and even some of President George W. Bush's most loyal backers are abandoning it. Iran, not the United States, seems to be the key rising regional power broker, and those hitherto derided Syrians aren't looking quite so foolish in their choices of allies. As violence rages beyond its eastern border, in Iraq, moreover, Jordan simultaneously looks anxiously westwards, sees the Iranian-encouraged Hamas securing its viciously achieved stranglehold on Gaza, and worries about a replicated process of Hamas primacy in the West Bank - directly threatening its own stability. It's a worrying picture, and Jordan's Hashemite rulers fear it can only get worse. If he thought it would make the difference, King Abdullah would be trying to repeat some of his late father's personal attempts to foster Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation and thus begin to defuse the Islamic extremist threat. He would probably be shuttling energetically between Ramallah and Tel Aviv, with intermittent visits to Washington, Moscow and all manner of other key capitals in between, radiating earnest endeavor and fair-mindedness in the manner of his much missed paternal mentor. But Abdullah knows full well that no amount of single-handed mediation by even the pluckiest of Jordanian kings is going to prove sufficient to restore the terror-battered Israeli public's shattered faith in the viability of a Palestinian negotiating partner, and that the Palestinian public, much of which quasi-democratically rejected Mahmoud Abbas's rotten Fatah hierarchy in choosing Hamas as its parliamentary leadership last year, has yet to be persuaded that Abbas is transforming himself into a reformist, corruption-smashing president worthy of their trust. Rather than limited Royal Jordanian diplomacy, what's needed, Amman has been telling every international would-be mediator, is a wider sense of constructive regional momentum, to revive public faith on both sides of the conflict in the viability of a settlement. This means a process in which not only Egypt and Jordan, already at formal peace with Israel, encourage the resumption of a substantive Abbas-Olmert dialogue, but one that sees other players in this region and beyond, with a common interest in marginalizing Iran and its fundamentalist allies, getting prominently and reassuringly involved, too. THE VARIOUS fragile sprouts of diplomatic activity that have emerged in the last few days are particularly interesting in the context of this urgent Jordanian sense of a need for widely backed progress to counter the Islamists' rise. All of a sudden, President Bush is devoting a single-subject speech to the imperative for Israeli-Palestinian movement. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading this way. The Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers have been here, championing the Arab League's proposals. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is speaking of the "quiet understandings" he has been reaching with Abbas, vowing to create a framework for further serious discussions with the territorially reduced PA chief, and stressing his desire "to start a political process with all my might." And Tony Blair is in town. Blair is Bush's man, imposed by the US on the rest of the Russia-EU-UN Quartet. Blair was effectively ousted as British prime minister by his own voters, by his own party, for the crime of unstintingly partnering Bush in the war against Saddam and the war on terror; the other Quartet players certainly don't have a kinder view of him than his own electorate. They just weren't given much of a choice. And because Bush, in the updated Middle East vision he unveiled on July 16, did not categorically oppose an eventual return of Hamas to the shattered PA unity government, did not decisively and specifically render Hamas beyond the diplomatic pale, there have been suggestions that his man Blair may yet seek to reach out to Hamas, however subtly and informally at first, as he bids to broker progress. His Northern Ireland experience, it can be argued, may have left him convinced that a realistic stab at stability requires the gradual rehabilitation of the most extreme rejectionists. But if so, Hamas is certainly not reading the signals, and has been opting for confrontational, anti-Blair rhetoric rather than inviting discourse. Abbas's notably bitter verbal assaults on Hamas - whose leaders, remember, he publicly accuses of seeking to murder him - hardly suggest that he would be urging such a course. And moves in the direction of legitimizing and thus strengthening Hamas and its sponsors run counter to the escalating concern of those other regional players about the emboldening of Iran. In summary, then, we have pressure from several regional players to revive a peace effort in order to marginalize Iran and its destabilizing influence, similar international interests in countering the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, an unpopular Israeli prime minister desperate for the boost of a peace breakthrough, a weary, worried PA leadership hoping to be shepherded and funded and protected by the international community, and the indefatigable, Bush-backed, would-be shepherd Blair. Our years of bloody experience may mean that profound skepticism about the prospects for genuine progress is the natural order of the day in Israel. But our years of experience must also have taught us that neither past failures, nor the most unpromising of present-day contexts, have ever deterred fresh efforts at mediation. And one thing is for certain. While Blair told his interlocutors on this first shuttle visit as Middle East envoy that he was here, as he put it to reporters, "to listen, learn and reflect," his future trips will be different. Blair didn't take this job to listen. He took it with every intention of sealing a deal. * * * THE KNESSET'S final day of legislation Wednesday before its summer recess brought a welcome and long-overdue escalation in the fines for individuals who breach the ban on smoking in public places, and for restaurants that fail to honor the law's provisions, too. The threat of a NIS 1,000 penalty for lighting up in shopping malls and bus stations might just give offenders pause. And the knowledge that they face a hefty NIS 5,000 slap might just prompt restaurants, belatedly, to tell their smoking clientele, rather than those who object to the cancerous pollution, to puff off. But, as ever, worthy legislation will only be as effective as the enforcement procedures. Responsibility for collecting the fines lies with the local authorities, whose incentive is that they get to keep the proceeds. Given the relentless complaints from municipalities nationwide that their revenues are insufficient for them to balance their books, here now is an opportunity for them to swell their coffers while simultaneously acting in the healthiest interests of their constituents. A win-win situation, if only local government chooses to utilize it. Maintaining the rare optimistic note as regards effective national leadership, kudos are also due to the Histadrut trade union federation and the Treasury for striking a deal before we had to deal with much of a strike. I still fail to understand why Histadrut chief Ofer Eini sought, and obtained, an across-the-board pay rise for the public sector, rather than focusing his demands on the lower-income brackets, when there can be no justification for the high-earners to have their pay hiked further. But, for once, the public was not protractedly caught in the middle and immensely inconvenienced as the warring sides went head-to-head. Last year, a quarter of the country spent the summer hiding out in bomb shelters or forced out of their homes by more than a month of incessant Hizbullah rocket attacks. For years before that, we endured the daily routine of dodge the suicide bomber - a life-and-death game played out in our city centers, our buses, our stores, our markets. We deserved better this summer than for a delinquent sense of national responsibility by the union chiefs and their government counterparts to condemn us to their own incendiary concoctions. It would have been better still, of course, if the strike could have been averted altogether; the mutual high praise that Eini, Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and their respective aides were heaping on each other Thursday can only suggest that such reasonable people should have been able to reach their compromise agreement without even the short-term shutdown. And while Ben-Gurion Airport, our sole international airport, was not ultimately closed at all, the very threat of a shut-down made life pretty miserable for large numbers of travelers and manufacturers, and didn't do much for the international credibility of a tourism industry that is desperately trying to attract overseas business. Legislators have displayed commendable common sense recently in taking on smokers, mandating the use of bicycle helmets and approving other laws to protect us from ourselves. It should not be beyond their wisdom to now set out procedures that, while maintaining workers' right to strike, also safeguard the public from the worst impact of a too-casual resort to labor action. The workers at our airports and seaports, for instance, belong on a list of essential employees for whom strike action, though not barred, would be limited to only the most exceptional circumstances.