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In Defense of Tony Blair, Peace Envoy ( May 28, 2015)

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The former prime minister worked hard on the Middle East. But it was an impossible job.

LONDON — You don’t have to be a devoted fan of Tony Blair to see that the mockery he has received concerning his resignation as Middle East peace envoy is unfair.

Much of the criticism he received during his eight years as Special Envoy for the International Quartet (comprising the US, the UN, the EU, and Russia) was disingenuous and overtly biased. That certainly included a June 2014 open letter to the Guardian whose signatories included George Galloway, conspiracy-theorist Baroness Tonge, and several other luminaries of the UK’s anti-Israel lobby.

Both that criticism and more recent derision (like the tweet sent on Blair’s resignation by a former British diplomat saying “Good news at last from the middle east!”) is informed by prejudice against a leader who in recent years has become one of the most reviled public figures in the UK and its media, and by ignorance of the realities of the region and the role he was supposed to play in it.

As the Quartet’s envoy, Blair’s task was to work for Palestinian economic empowerment, the theory being that economic development, along with money poured into political institutions, would make a Palestinian state more viable, and less likely to fall under the domination of Hamas or another extremist organization.

Blair successfully pushed for fewer Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, (though there are still a great many and no Israeli government will get rid of them altogether, short of a larger peace agreement). He helped make it much easier for Palestinian businesspeople to use the Allenby crossing to and from Jordan.

Blair could come across as imperious and entitled in his dealings with local politicians on both sides, but he clearly understood that quiet, consistent work would achieve more on the ground than the kind of grandstanding that is all too common when Europeans try to get involved in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

As the Middle East commentator Tom Gross says, “Blair had the right idea much more than he is given credit for. He wanted to build peace from the ground up rather than just make grand gestures or take part in photo-ops”

Blair quickly saw the vital need for improvements in governance and institution-building in a Palestine that still lacks the attributes of modern statehood found even in much poorer but less dysfunctional unrecognized countries like the Somaliland Republic and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The effective sacking of reformist Palestinan Prime Minister Salam Fayyad by President Mahmoud Abbas in 2013, however, killed off any serious effort by the Palestinian authority to deal with corruption as well as damaging what was left of the peace of process.

Still, in the years since Blair took up the position in 2007, the rate of Israeli settlement-building went down, as did terror attacks on Israel mounted from the West Bank.

So, arguably, Blair’s performance in the post has actually been not bad, especially given the fact that it is actually an impossible job, and given that, it has only been a part-time occupation (undertaken for no salary).

The rest of former prime minister’s time was apparently taken up by his (controversial) business activities, by the requirements of running or fundraising for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and by the commitments inherent in living the international celebrity/politician/philanthropist/socialite lifestyle.

It is an impossible job because there can be little progress even on minor issues, let alone a broader peace settlement, unless the Israeli and the two Palestinian leaderships want it.

For both Netanyahu and Abbas, the current situation probably feels livable for the time being, especially given the chaos and economic ruination in neighboring countries. There may not be peace in the Western European sense in the Holy Land , but it’s certainly peaceful compared to Aleppo or Ramadi.

Ramallah is visibly prosperous and the Palestinian leadership has hugely enriched itself in the now traditional way through corruption and by the diversion of the billions in aid that the international community has provided the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel feels relatively secure from terrorist attacks coming from the West Bank, is presumably taking comfort from Hezbollah’s bloody involvement in the Syrian civil war, but is deeply concerned by the Iranian nuclear program and President Barack Obama’s courting of Tehran. That’s not a situation that necessarily offers much leverage to someone in Blair’s position, even if that person were better equipped personally for the job, perhaps with the charisma and prestige of Bill Clinton.

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To the extent that he has always lacked gravitas and often comes across more as a capable performer than a man of profound conviction, Blair was a rather unlikely candidate for the job. He was never able to overcome the impression that he had taken it partly because he did not know what to do after leaving Downing Street at the age of 54, and partly to restore a reputation that at least at in the UK seemed to be as bad as a politician’s can be short of an accusation of child molestation.

Indeed Blair’s unpopularity in the UK, especially among the political and media class, is such that Britons wrongly assume that he is equally disliked abroad. In fact, when Blair left office he was a figure of high repute in the United States, in Eastern Europe and much of Asia. In some places, like Kurdistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, he was and is considered a liberator and hero: his photograph graces mantelpieces and children are named after him.

His subsequent PR work for Central Asian autocrats certainly disillusioned those who had admired the way Blair had put the promotion of democracy and “liberal interventionism” at the heart of British foreign policy.

Still, it was rather odd than anyone would expected the Israelis or the Palestinians to pay much heed to any former British prime minister — both groups feel they have ample historical reason to be distrustful of the Brits. Indeed the fact that a Briton sought, and was given, the post looks like yet another manifestation of the peculiar delusion that there is a South Asian level of affection and respect for Britain to be found in the parts of the Middle East it once ruled.

Moreover, for the envoy to enjoy real influence, he would have to have the full backing and engagement of the Quartet, and access to some of the carrots and sticks in their possession. Even if the former were available, the latter would require the full-time commitment of an unusually adroit and powerful individual.

Those who criticize Blair’s performance in this post tend to miss the fact that Middle East has changed profoundly in the last few years. Even the phrase “Middle East Peace,” if used in the traditional way to refer exclusively to the Israel and its conflicts with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours, has become brutally absurd. It is now about Syria and ISIS, not to mention Yemen, Iraq, Iran and — a cartographical stretch but not a geopolitical one — Libya.

After all, at least 210,000 people have been killed during the four years of Syrian civil war — more than double the toll of those who died in six decades of Arab Israeli conflict. Some 60,000 more have been killed in Iraq since the ISIS invasion, and the Libyan civil war took at least 10,000 lives in just eight months, more than both Intifadas, both Gaza Wars and the Israel-Hezbollah war put together. Moreover, as these wars continue to roil and to spill over into countries like Yemen, they are creating a gigantic refugee crisis in the middle east that will affect the region for decades to come.

So Blair could be forgiven for thinking that he had been working in a backwater on an issue whose relative importance has massively diminished.

Blair must also have been all too aware his Quartet employers had much bigger foreign policy fish to fry. All of them would be remiss if they were not concentrating on Ukraine, the crisis in the EU highlighted by Greece’s default, tension in the South China Sea, nuclear proliferation in the Gulf, and the bloody increase in Islamist guerilla violence in Mali, Nigeria and Kenyaamong other challenges. .

This is not to say that the Israel-Palestinian conflict has no objective importance. But the competition for urgent global attention is now so much more intense. It would be surprising if someone like Blair, who likes to be at the center of things, hadn’t recognized this a while ago, and is getting out while there’s still a chance for him to play in the big leagues. Who knows, maybe he has an eye on the Labour party as it lies adrift.

* * *

It will be interesting to see what Tony Blair does now, if he will throw himself even more forcefully into moneymaking by means that are likely to earn him yet more opprobrium. If he does do that it will be sad, given that Blair is hardly the demon he is often made out to be in the UK.

Indeed the fact that he is so loathed by people on both sides of the British party spectrum makes you wonder if there isn’t some complicated psychology at play, if Blair-hatred isn’t a kind of British self-loathing.

This is especially true in party politics. After all, it is no secret that Prime Minister David Cameron and his circle consciously modeled themselves on Blair and have aped (and even exceeded) his use of modern branding and marketing techniques; or that some in the Labour party are now desperately trying to rediscover the Blairite values that made it an election winner.

Blair of course remains the only Labour leader to have won a British general election in 40 years, yet after 2007 he went from being perceived as the savior of the Labour movement to a hate figure on the level of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Emmanuel Goldstein.

On the other hand, it’s hard to warm to what Blair has become today. His reaction to what is in essence a forced exile from his own country has not been attractive. Although he’s hardly the first former premier to be excited by the company and amorality of what once was called the jet-set, Blair has pursued wealth and glamour with extraordinary intensity.

Perhaps he is as disillusioned with politics as his former supporters are with him, and has become a ruthless cynic. It would help explain the Clintonesque sleaze of his PR efforts for the kleptocrats of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the strange cultish nature of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and the business relations with sinister Russian and Gulf billionaires. But it would not explain his taking — or giving up — the job of Middle East Peace Envoy. Blair worked hard at it for eight years, but it was an inherently hopeless and thankless task.

Jonathan Foreman, the author of Aiding And Abetting: Foreign Aid Failures And The 0.7% Deception, is a commentator in London.