London ~~ Tuesday June 26 2007
There’s too much haste about Blair the peacemaker
Scroll down to read "Blair's flaky credentials"
Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing
It is the haste with which Tony Blair has scripted his own sequel as the world’s envoy to the Middle East that gives the impression of self-absorption. The rush by his team to try to announce some kind of role by today, the last day of his premiership, seems designed to ease the sting of surrendering high office more than to solve the problems of the Middle East.
It is not that the idea is ludicrous, if you take a long step around Blair’s role as one of the architects of the Iraq invasion, and his support of Israel’s military action in Lebanon. Many Arabs loathe him just for that, and in a region that sustains grudges so easily for hundreds of years, the grievances of the past decade are hardly going to be set aside. But Blair’s passion for tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond dispute.
Nor does his role upstage Gordon Brown as much as it might have seemed just a fortnight ago (although it would have been polite to tell the incoming team before last Wednesday, as diplomats say was the case). Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in the past two weeks has undermined Brown’s pragmatic and humane proposal to focus on the Palestinian economy even while the politics were stalled.
But the problem with any role for Blair is that it is impossible to define while the political route ahead remains so unclear, and that won’t be sorted out by a few hours of talks about what he is supposed to do. The speed with which Blair’s role has been written has left ambassadors and senior Foreign Office officials speechless in the past five days, gesturing with their canapés at garden parties to make up for an absence of words. The plan to make him an envoy for the Quartet the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia has been driven by the US and Blair’s office (the Foreign Office kept at arm’s length), with EU support. Finally, at the weekend, Russia gave startled assent.
The role will be “political”, rather than economic, like the job done by Jim Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, who used his efforts (and his own money) to try to breathe life into the Palestinian economy. At least before Hamas’s seizure of Gaza, the pursuit of peace-through-prosperity was the thrust of Brown’s policy. He had dispatched Ed Balls, economic secretary to the Treasury, to the region, and Balls had concluded that economic recovery was “a prerequisite for bringing peace”.
In a recent speech to Labour Friends of Israel, the parlimentary lobbying group, Brown cited the report by the Portland Trust, set up by financier Sir Ronald Cohen, which argued that the development of the Northern Ireland economy had lessons for the Palestinians.
The attraction is that, even when diplomacy has disintegrated, a focus on the economy may still improve the situation. The Portland report is an excellent analysis of why that worked in Northern Ireland. But amid turmoil, it is impossible, and that may be the case on the West Bank and Gaza now.
The US-Israeli plan is now to pour resources into the West Bank, and to shore up Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, to make the contrast with Gaza as great as possible. But the hazards are huge. Abbas will not want to abandon the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza (nor to seem like a US-Israeli pawn). Any revival of the West Bank economy would depend on Israel relaxing control of Palestinian movement, as argued in a World Bank report last month that was highly critical of Israeli policy. Yet Israel can say that this would expose it to insupportable security threats; Hamas has a significant presence on the West Bank and it is not going away.
Blair may well feel that this paralysis plays to his strengths. The success of talks in Northern Ireland, arguably his greatest achievement, sprang from his skills as a broker. He has always been convinced, officials say, that if you lean over the table, in shirt sleeves, looking the other side in the eyes, you can extract a deal. No doubt that is how he imprinted this weekend’s EU deal so firmly with British concerns.
But that technique can make too light of the deep changes needed to make the deals work. In Northern Ireland, Blair’s regional devolution had paved the way. And no broker, however charismatic, will have the clout of a government head. In Blair’s rush to fashion a new persona, in one of the world’s most bitter conflicts, it is hard not to feel a personal urgency that is out of step with the crisis in the region.
London ~~ Tuesday June 26 2007
Blair's flaky credentials
Tony Blair didn't prove himself as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland, and his experiences there are unlikely to be of any help in the Middle East.
Sending Blair to the Middle East on the assumption that Northern Ireland shows him to be a proven peacemaker is madness.
He was manipulated throughout the peace process by parties - Sinn Féin and the DUP - which had a vested interest in prolonging it. These parties settled terms in the end only when they had overtaken their own political rivals and when it was clear that the Blair era had expired. They faced the prospect that Gordon Brown as prime minister would not be as biddable as Blair had been.
It wasn't Blair's process, it was theirs, and they played it as extended conflict by political means to their own advantage. Blair was never able to force the pace on key issues such as the decommissioning of IRA weapons.
He committed himself for the first half of the process to shoring up the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, though it is now clear that Sinn Féin had no intention of helping Trimble. It was prepared to destroy him and take its chances with Paisley, who was much less compromising but would carry the whole Unionist community with him.
So all the time Blair gave to backing Trimble he was merely treading water, biding time until the IRA could see the whites of Paisley's eyes. The peace processing miracle that Blair had previously worked to was a deal between the moderate SDLP and Ulster Unionist party. These would secure the middle ground against extremism and dole out minor jobs in government to Sinn Féin and the DUP to keep them happy. That was the settlement in 1998. It didn't work because the middle ground would not hold, because the IRA enervated the system by procrastinating on decommissioning and because Paisley and the Provos began to see the prospect of drawing together after a collapse and worked for that collapse.
So how will that experience help Mr Blair when he meets Hamas? Currently Israel is flirting with Fatah in the hopes of cutting Hamas out. That leaves only the prospect of a deal that can be undermined by the truculent outsider. It will perpetuate conflict.
Or will Blair tell Olmert the real lesson of the Northern Ireland process, that the troublemakers inherit the goodies?
But there is another big problem.
The violent conflict in Northern Ireland ended because it had burnt itself out and achieved nothing. Blair would have made no more impact before it reached that point than Whitelaw did in 1972 when Adams was still a fanatic who thought he could burn his way to a united Ireland. Hamas, however, is still in the ascendant.
Crucially, it has gains to make that are, at least remotely, achievable, a new state for the Palestinians. The IRA never had a chance of victory, and had to kill for decades before it could learn that. A lot of people got big jobs by talking up their achievements in peacemaking in Northern Ireland. It is all baloney. Peace came to Northern Ireland because the truculent parties got the best that was available to them after taking decades to work out that they had been pursuing political fantasies, not because Blair or anyone else showered them with wisdom and grace or applied any particular genius to contriving a deal.
But there is one lesson that stands from Northern Ireland that might be of value in Palestine. Leave the militant leadership intact. Don't assassinate. Then you might have a pragmatic and experienced person to make a deal with in the end. Maybe. But he's the one you need and when he's ready it won't take a political genius on the other side to finish the deal, just someone smart enough not to get strung along, the way Blair was strung along by Adams.