Experienced observers of the Middle East are right to be sceptical of Blair’s appointment. His commitment to the principles of American foreign policy will prevent him from implementing any meaningful change.
In UK Politics, the atmosphere has changed. Tony Blair has gone at last and the country is breathing a big sigh of relief. Gordon Brown has been the friend and ally of Tony Blair for 25 years. They have squabbled like brothers who fall out from time to time but nevertheless remained very close. But their style is very different. Tony Blair was a showman – an actor/presenter. He loved the stage. He loved press conferences. He liked to fly around the world, meeting important people and appearing in the media as often as possible.
Gordon Brown has a different style. His father was a Scottish clergyman. His style is not flashy. He is more intelligent and a deeper thinker. He reads veraciously and attends to the detail of policy in a way Blair never did. For the moment, the people of the UK are sick of the spin and the style of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s rating in the opinion polls has moved up greatly. Labour is feeling very hopeful that it might recover from the unpopularity of Tony Blair and win the next election.
However, it is not yet clear that this change means any change in UK policy towards the Middle East or support for President Bush. Gordon Brown is a great Atlanticist. He is very supportive of the UK/US “special relationship”. He has been traditionally friendly with many US Democrats and is well aware that Bush is now deeply unpopular in the US and has only a little more than a year left in office. But the Democrats have traditionally been greater friends of Israel than the Republicans. I suspect that we will see a continuing reduction of the number of UK troops in Iraq – but not a complete pull-out. This will be accompanied by an increase in UK deployment in Afghanistan and in general continuing support for US policy towards Lebanon, Israel and the suffering of Palestine.
Experienced observers of the Middle East are in very pessimistic mood. US policy towards Lebanon incites growing division. Israel talks of another attack on Lebanon to avenge its defeat in summer 2006. There is even talk of an Israeli attack on Syria and some inside the Bush administration still hope for a massive bombing onslaught on Iran before Bush leaves office.
The position on Afghanistan is becoming increasingly unstable and Pakistan is becoming more tense and explosive. The US and Israel also appear to think that they can permanently divide Gaza from the West Bank and reach some kind of deal with President Abbas which could only mean his acceptance of a series of Bantustans that they may try to call a Palestinian state.
Into this worrying situation is inserted the wild card of Tony Blair’s appointment as special envoy to the Middle East. He has been appointed by the Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia that are supposedly taking forward the road map to peace in the Middle East but which in practice is completely moribund. Serious commentators were astonished by this appointment. The man who had dishonoured his 10 years in office as Prime Minister by his deceit over the Iraq war and his unconditional support for Bush over Iraq, Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon, the boycott of Hamas after its victory in the Palestinian elections and his swallowing of neo-conservative rhetoric on “the war on terror” and “the clash of civilisations”, had persuaded President Bush to appoint him to a role described as a peace envoy to the Middle East! It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Why had he wanted the job? It seems to have been the only thing he had ever really asked of Bush. And what is the likely consequence?
My own conclusion is that Blair is still questing after his legacy. He still wants to be an important figure on the world stage. And perhaps deep down he feels some guilt about his role in the Middle East. He wants to build on the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland and to be part of a peace process in the Middle East that will wipe away the stain of Iraq and secure his place in the history books. I am afraid that my conclusion is that his desire for this job also proves that Tony Blair is delusional. The job is not, as it has been spun, the role of peace envoy to the Middle East. It is a much smaller remit which is to help the Palestinians build their institutions and economy in preparation for statehood.
The previous occupant of the post was Jim Wolfenson who took it on after his successful two terms as President of the World Bank. His time coincided with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He worked hard to raise billions of dollars for investment in Gaza and put in millions of his own money. He was full of hope that a booming Gaza would be the first step to the building of a free, independent Palestine. He resigned in disgust because Gaza’s crossings to Egypt and Israel remained closed. The airport was not opened and the fruit and vegetables that had been produced in the abandoned settler glasshouses rotted at the border. Wolfenson saw the corruption at the border and the corruption of the Palestinian authority. He blamed Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s neo-conservative adviser on the Middle East for constantly undermining him and the prospect of a free, independent Palestinian state.
Will Blair do any better? After all, he did work hard at the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland peace process started before he took office. It involved the UK government talking to the former “terrorists” to persuade them to give up the gun and participate in politics to achieve their goal of a united Ireland. Long negotiations went on involving the making of many concessions and the release of prisoners convicted for serious violent offences. Could Blair apply these lessons to Palestine? It would involve creating justice and hope for the Palestinian people and then negotiating with all the factions for a truce and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The hope of a united Palestine for all its people would remain the aim of Hamas as is a united Ireland for the IRA. But two states based on 67 boundaries with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and a negotiated settlement on the right of return would be the equivalent of the settlement with the IRA that brought peace to Northern Ireland and an end to the IRA bombing campaigns in London.
It would be wonderful if Blair would see the light and patiently and determinably seek such a settlement. I fear instead he will seek to take forward Sharon’s plan which parallels the apartheid plan for South Africa, four impoverished Bantustans for the Palestinians and Israel left with 85 per cent of historical Palestine. This means of course that the bloodshed and suffering will continue for a long time to come. I am pessimistic but I would love to be proved wrong.