The relentless facilitator

By David Horovitz February 11, 2008

Undeterred by the deteriorating situation in Gaza and the lack of discernable progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Tony Blair remains convinced that a peace accord this year is viable and determined to impress upon both sides that their own best interests require it

The British government on Friday saw fit to reprimand Israel for reducing the quantities of electricity it supplies to Hamas-run Gaza.

‘Such action risks a further deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Gaza without improving the security situation,’ Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Development Secretary Douglas Alexander declared in a joint statement.

While these two London-based government ministers felt qualified to assert with absolute certainty that this latest Israeli effort to stop the Gaza Kassam fire on Israel could have no security benefit, it is striking that their former boss, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who has the advantage of spending a great deal of time out here, allows himself to pass no such definitive judgments.

Asked directly by The Jerusalem Post as he completed his latest visit at the end of last week what he thought Israel should do about the deteriorating reality in Gaza, Blair acknowledged how complex a problem it poses, and spoke first about finding avenues to improve the infrastructure there.

Pressed specifically as to whether he felt he needed to say to Israel, ‘For goodness sake, don’t turn off the power, don’t cut the fuel supplies,’ Blair’s response was very different from that of the government over which he used to preside.

‘It’s incredibly difficult, this, and my worry all the time is that you alienate the people,’ he began. ‘But the reason why I have sympathized with the dilemma Israel has, and I’ve been criticized for doing so, is that if I was sitting in their [the Israelis'] seat…’ Here he paused, and then continued: ‘I mean, the truth of the matter is that it is difficult for them to be able to attack the extremists in isolation from the people, so all the options are difficult. I think that’s all I can say on that.’

That answer typifies the former British prime minister’s approach to his Quartet role, and underlines why he has been able to establish a credible working rapport with both Israelis and those Palestinians who are seeking to marginalize the Islamic extremists. Insistent, even in the most discouraging times, that the majority on either side of the conflict wants to see a viable negotiated settlement, he is sensitive and empathetic to the often-conflicting narratives those two sides advance, and seems to be serving in good part as some kind of verbal facilitator, conveying to either side the concerns, misconceptions and frustrations of the other. Conversation with him is therefore full of phrases such as, ‘Well, what I tell the Israelis about the Palestinian perspective…’ and ‘from the Israeli point of view, as I say to the Palestinians…’

Striving to make a go of the improbable Annapolis timetable for a permanent accord by the end of the year, Blair remains adamant that the mission is ‘doable’ – provided, that is, that both sides want to do it. And it seems obvious to him that both sides have every interest in doing it. His frustration, it often seems, stems from his sense that this overwhelming Israeli and Palestinian self-interest in an accord is more apparent to him than to the two sides themselves.

Do you want to start by telling me some good things? We can get on to all the discouraging stuff in a minute.

First of all, the West Bank economy is growing again. There is some limited and small progress on the economic front. And if we conclude the deals on the economic projects in the next few months that we’ve got under discussion at the moment, it will make a big difference on the Palestinian side. That’s one piece of good news.

The second piece: I was in Nablus earlier today… I couldn’t have gone to Nablus when I first arrived here. Does that mean that everything’s perfect in Nablus? No. But it means that there’s been a lot of progress in the last few months.

The third thing: In my conversations with the Israeli leadership and senior officials, there is a sense that people are moving from a [mind-set of] ‘Well, if it happens, it may happen that the Palestinians get a state,’ to a sense of ‘What is it that we can do, consistent with our security, that’ll help them get them there?’

The bad news is obviously very visible as well. Ever more visible. But it’s not all bleak by any means.

What would you recommend that Israel do about Gaza?

Well, it’s really difficult… But you’ve got to find a way of trying to help people in Gaza more with the broader humanitarian picture. I don’t just mean getting food through. There’s no reason, for example, why you can’t do infrastructure projects and so on in Gaza whilst obviously it being impossible to deal with the extremists who continue to attack innocent Israeli civilians.

Specifically in terms of Israel – uncertain about how to grapple with the fact that it is being hit by rockets across the border; castigated when it turns off the power; facing an escalating security threat – what would you advise the Israeli government to do?

We need a better and more sophisticated strategy for Gaza, where we help the people. For example, I’ve had good meetings in the last few days about how we can do various infrastructure projects in Gaza which are of broad humanitarian advantage for the people there. The Palestinian Authority can take credit rather than Hamas, and we should do that. The second thing we need to do is make faster and more urgent progress on the West Bank.

One of the reasons why the extremists in Gaza provoked the situation in Gaza in the last few weeks is precisely because of their fear that if things start to move on the West Bank, that if you start to get the sense that possibly there can be an agreement, then obviously that puts them in a very difficult position.
So what we should do is redouble our efforts to make sure, for example, that we can get clearance on the things that need to move on the West Bank…

The Israeli system needs to move to an activist point of view in helping the Palestinians – for example in Nablus, because they have made certain changes there. 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. As a result, incidentally, there’s a little lift in the economy there. There are proposals for various economic projects there. Let’s move those fast. My view, even more emphatically than before, is that the key to a successful negotiation is to change the facts on the ground.

Specifically, would you say to Israel, ‘For goodness sake, don’t turn off the power, don’t cut the fuel supplies [to Gaza],’ or ‘I haven’t got anything better to suggest to you’?

It’s incredibly difficult, this, and my worry all the time is that you alienate the people. But the reason why I have sympathized with the dilemma Israel has, and I’ve been criticized for doing so, is that if I was sitting in their [the Israelis'] seat… I mean, the truth of the matter is that it is difficult for them to be able to attack the extremists in isolation from the people, so all the options are difficult. I think that’s all I can say on that.

Why does Gaza, through the kinds of projects you could presumably have helped steward, not have more of an independent capacity, for example, to generate electricity?

[This could be possible] with a bit of imagination, without putting in goods that are going to make bombs and so on. In the last few days, I’ve been dealing with cement getting into Gaza for phase one of the sewage treatment project, and we’re trying to get the written permissions necessary for phase two. There is a series of other projects like electricity and water.

The importance in all this is always to keep in mind what we are trying to do: to get to the point where the moderate part – and it is the majority part, in my view – of the Palestinian people are sufficiently empowered to make a deal, and sufficiently hopeful about their future to keep to it…

Is there enough of a basis left in Gaza for you and [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas, never mind Israel, to genuinely control and build upon?

When I first came here, it was conventional wisdom that Hamas would win on the West Bank. I don’t think anyone believes they would actually win an election on the West Bank tomorrow. In Gaza, headlines are full of the opinion polls talking about how Hamas’s support has gone up once they broke through the barrier and so on. But [support for Hamas is still] beneath the support for the Palestinian Authority, and the majority of people in Gaza still think that the illegal coup was wrong. So it’s not as though you’ve got nothing to work with. I saw some people from Gaza today, and their basic plea – these are people who have got no time for Hamas at all – was just ‘be smarter about how you deal with this.’

But is there enough room to maneuver on the ground in Gaza, to practically control projects there?

You can do it under terms that make it clear who the project managers are and how they operate. If they can’t operate like that, obviously you stop there.

I recently met with someone quite senior in the UN who said, ‘Maybe we should talk to Hamas.’ Then you have the other argument that says nothing should be done, by the UN or anybody else in Gaza, because you are enabling Hamas to rule, promote terrorism, and not face the consequences since Gaza is being bailed out the whole time. Where do you stand between these two views?

You’ve got to be extremely careful about this. There’s a very fine line… If people in Gaza feel that they are being ‘collectively punished,’ in inverted commas, then you’ve obviously got a risk that people react against that, and say ‘this is unfair towards us.’ And these are the people you’re trying to reach, who maybe don’t support Hamas and who say, ‘Look, I didn’t vote for this, I don’t agree with this, and yet I’m still getting…’

The single most important thing you learn about politics is always to have a strategy, and if possible to have a smarter strategy than your opponent. Our strategy is very simple: We say, the international community says, the president of the United States says, by the end of this year we want an agreement…

The problem is not that you couldn’t work out what the basic deal is. Some people would say this is ridiculous, but I actually believe that most people more or less know the boundaries of the deal, give or take a bit. But for the politicians to be able to do this, they’ve got to be able to stand up – on the Israeli side to say to their people, ‘The Palestinians are getting serious about security,’ and on the Palestinian side to say [to their people], ‘I can see that there’s going to come a time when the occupation is lifted and when we are free to go about our business and have our state.’ At the moment, [leaders on both sides] would find it quite hard to say that. We’ve got to get to the position, over the next few months, where they find it easier.’

But why would the Palestinian leadership have a problem telling their people right now that ‘the occupation will end’? Israel has gone from Gaza and was about to elect a leader who was going to pull almost all the way back [in the West Bank] without an agreement.

If I can just interrupt you. You’ve got to see it from where they see it. I mean, I agree with you…

I am saying this from their point of view: The Israelis left Gaza and they were about to elect a prime minister who was going to pull out of most of the West Bank. That’s quite clear. What I don’t see is how Abbas can possibly stand up in front of his own people and agree to anything other than maximalist demands, because his leadership apparatus, not to mention Hamas, through the education system, the media and so on, has never given the Palestinian public any sense of Jewish sovereign legitimacy. And therefore for him to stand up and say anything compromising is to seem a traitor.

I think he can do this, and he can do the deal, if they think there is a credible future. This is the point I make the whole time to people. I say to them, ‘You’re forgetting how Israel sees this.’ What the Israelis say is that, ‘In 2004 we took a really difficult decision. We said we’d get out of Gaza and we’ll take our settlers with us.’ And they did. And I remember standing in the Rose Garden with [US] President [George W.] Bush doing a press conference when this had just been announced, and I said then that ‘the international community has got to get in there, it’s got to support the Palestinians. But the Palestinians have got to show that Gaza becomes the model.’ Instead of which, [Gaza] became the model for the wrong rather than for the right way. So that’s how Israel sees this, and I totally understand that, and that’s why I say this to people.
The Palestinians don’t see it like that, because they’ve got a whole set of arguments about how the disengagement was done. Let’s leave all that aside, whether it’s right or wrong.

The single most important thing on the West Bank is that if they’re waiting for three hours to get through a checkpoint and they’re an ordinary business guy, a decent business guy… I was talking to one today. At the moment, if Abu Mazen stands up in front of them and says, ‘Actually guys, we’re going to have a state,’ they’d say, ‘You must be joking.’ What we’ve got to do is put him in the position where he can [credibly] say that.

The Palestinians would make exactly the same point on security. What they say to me, for example, in Nablus, is, ‘Look at what we’ve done [to improve security], and yet [the Israelis have] still got the checkpoint.’ Now, what I have to say [to them] is that ‘there are real improvements in Nablus, but that’s not the same as the full thing. You’ve still got a way to go. Actually you’ve admitted to me that, go back a year and you weren’t in control of this place at all. You’ve kind of implicitly understood the reason why the occupation was there in the first place.’ But it takes some time for people to get their heads round this.

The Israeli strident argument would be that if there is a dramatic easing of roadblocks, closures and so on, there’ll be a dramatic upsurge in violence, including against Israelis – by the way, Abbas would probably fall as well – and who are you kidding?

Yes, and my answer to that is that no one is asking for a dramatic easing [of security-related restrictions]. People are asking for a step-by-step easing, as the Palestinians show step-by-step capability. Now, the Palestinians have got to do a lot more on this. For a start, they’ve got to take the [security] plans that they’re working on. They need to have them properly funded. They don’t just need to have the forces properly trained, they need to be pensioning off a whole generation of people. They need to replace them with a younger generation who are properly trained. They need, in other words, to start operating like the Jordanians operate. Now they are a way off that…

One has got to understand it from both sides. From the Israeli side at the moment, they would find it unacceptable in a place like Nablus not to have some form of checking as people came out because of what had happened [with suicide bombings, etc. in the past]. But it is worth seeing whether you could at least make that system of checking a lot quicker, a lot better, a lot better organized, particularly for people who are trying to do business, and whether each and every one of these separate roadblocks is actually fully necessary.

Would Israel be harming Abbas if it released prisoners to Hamas under a deal [for Gilad Schalit]?

It’s not my area of expertise. You release the people you don’t believe are a real threat.

What is Egypt going to do about the breached border with Gaza, and why didn’t they crack down properly on the tunnels before?

Egypt in the last few days has taken some lessons out of what has happened and moved quite strongly against Hamas as a result. All of the Arab world are in the same position as the Palestinians in the sense that they want to believe that there’s some hope in the [negotiated] process. And if [there is progress], it makes it much easier for them to take some tough positions. The Egyptians were worried about what would happen if they started to take really tough action with a lot of people pouring through the barrier. Everything becomes easier if people think this thing is going somewhere.

I spend a lot of time talking to the Arabs. 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.

The Arab world is in transition. These Gulf and Arab states are in transition, and the question is, where are they transitioning to? There are two visions. One is a vision increasingly adopted by a younger leadership, which is [that] they 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. And the other vision of this is a battle between Islam versus the West and its allies, including Israel, and it’s a battle to the death. The Arab leadership, especially the younger generation, sees resolution of [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] as an important part in making sure that their [modern] vision beats the other [Islamist] vision. But the other vision is strong in parts of the Arab street.

The Iranian push [to a nuclear capability] seems critical to that battle of the visions. Where does the effort to grapple with that stand now?

Correct. I think it stands in a more balanced state [now that the author of the American National Intelligence Estimate] has put it in a greater sense of perspective. [Blair is referring to testimony on the Iranian threat last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee by Admiral Michael McConnell, the director of National Intelligence.]

So, finally, a fifth of the way into the Annapolis timetable, you share President Bush’s certainty that this can be done?

Nobody is certain about it. My point is that it is doable. But it has to be driven with greater urgency, focus, determination and strategy.

© The Jerusalem Post