The Blair Option in Palestine
The release of an abducted BBC journalist in Gaza is being seen by some as an attempt by Hamas (which denies any part in the kidnapping) to curry favor with Tony Blair, who on stepping down as Britain’s prime minister was appointed international envoy to Israel and Palestine. Blair has the thankless task of helping the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas build institutions for a viable state, following Hamas’ military takeover of Gaza.
Given the stakes, this is a task worth doing despite the high risk of failure. But unless Blair gets a lot of unexpected support, failure is what will happen.
Four basic facts govern Blair’s role:
- No peace is possible unless the Palestinian government becomes master in its own house;
- Nothing is possible if Gaza remains a virtual charnel house;
- Abbas cannot succeed and Hamas cannot be politically weakened unless there is massive external economic assistance;
- It is imperative to limit the damage caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to everything else that has to be done in the Middle East.
Blair isn’t the first statesman to try helping the Palestinians. James D. Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, tried earlier in Bush’s term. Wolfensohn made some progress, but it was not enough, especially when the United States, Israel, and the European Union chose to starve the Palestinians financially after Hamas won its unexpected victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections. Wolfensohn quit in frustration.
Blair is the most senior out-of-power statesman ever to get engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He cannot be dismissed as a functionary with no political base. His role has been blessed both by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He has a long history of engagement in Arab-Israeli issues, and for years pressed for effective outside efforts to move the Palestine problem toward resolution.
At the same time, Blair won’t just take orders from the US. That would be the kiss of death, following Blair’s controversial mimicking of US policy in Iraq. Instead, at least on paper, Blair will work for the so-called Quartet, which also includes the EU, the United Nations, and Russia. Also, his formal role is limited to helping the Palestinians sort out their economic and political affairs, not trying to negotiate a peace settlement – a task reserved for US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. But Blair’s high political profile means that what he does can’t be divorced from the broader politics or quietly played down if things don’t go well.
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At the least, Blair must press for a radical increase in funds provided by the outside world to the Palestinian government as well as to the 1.4 million Palestinians trapped in Hamas-run Gaza. So far America has pledged $40 million in humanitarian funds for Gaza (just $30 a person), and about $86 million in security training money for the West Bank. These sums will be added to Palestinian tax receipts that Israel collected but refused to hand to over to a government that included Hamas; Israel is now releasing about half of the approximately $700 million. But total funds pledged by all sources are only a small fraction of what is urgently needed.
If Abbas is to compete with Hamas and its well-developed social-welfare structure and to avert human catastrophe in Gaza, he needs billions rather than millions of dollars in aid. Along with a major increase in US funds, the EU needs to increase its aid dramatically. But if outside money is to flow, Blair must get the Palestinian government to rein in its rampant corruption.
All this requires clear thinking. At the RAND Corporation, for example, a team of researchers has laid out a comprehensive approach to building a successful Palestinian state, covering governance, security, education, health, water, investment – as well as long-term economic relations with Israel and the outside world. RAND’s practical ideas have drawn praise from some Palestinian as well as Israeli leaders, precisely because they are about people more than about politics.
But even if Blair can get the economic development issues right, he can’t stop there if Abbas is to have a chance to succeed. Blair will need to gain Israel’s assurances that life for Palestinians, both in the West Bank and in Gaza, will become better. That includes greater freedom of movement, both within the West Bank and between it and Gaza.
Blair will also likely press Israel to prove its intentions by stopping all settlement activity in the West Bank – no new settlements, no expansion of existing ones.
By the same token, Blair will need to press the Palestinians to deliver a virtual cessation of attacks on Israel from Palestinian territories, including by Hamas, lest all peace efforts be blown apart by renewed fighting. As always, such a cessation would be at the mercy of extremists competing for power or bent on making peace impossible.
In the process, Blair will have to talk to all parties, including Hamas – an Israeli and US sticking-point.
These are all needs to be met even before the US can try again to broker a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. In the end, the obstacles may cause the “Blair option” to fall short. But everyone committed to a positive outcome for Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East should wish Blair good luck.