Blair’s skills are perfect for Middle East role

By David Sharrock, Ireland correspondent of The Times (THE TIMES, 27/06/07):

Tony Blair is the right person for the role of Middle East envoy, his long-term Irish peace process partner Bertie Ahern said this morning, as he paid tribute to the outgoing prime minister’s qualities of persistence and determination.

And Mr Ahern is absolutely right. The prospect of forging a durable new dispensation for Israel/Palestine may seem to have receded further towards the horizon than ever before, but Mr Blair is bringing a highly individual set of skills to a problem which is fundamentally about negotiation.

His experience in Ulster will ensure that his instincts on the two core issues will be right. These are, in essence, that there is only one viable solution – the two states envisaged by the Oslo Accords – and a renewed realisation by all the protagonists that this is the case.

While it is a bad idea to assume that the success of a particular peace process model is transferable to another region, nevertheless, there are at least the outlines of old arguments which apply both to Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine.

Both pit a community which regards itself as dispossessed victims against another which views itself as under siege.

When Mr Blair arrived in Ireland in 1997 crucial spadework had been completed by his predecessors – the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement of Lady Thatcher and the 1993 Downing Street Declaration of Sir John Major.

The Republican movement led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – both members of the Provisional IRA’s ruling ’Army Council’ – was ready to deal seriously so long as it received a genuine commitment to bring all the parties to the negotiating table. In the end, the Republicans settled for far less than the stated aim for which they had been fighting for three decades.

The Unionists were reluctant and divided over the wisdom of treating with «men of violence» but their then principal leader Lord Trimble was realistic about the need to corral the Republican foe into a binding accord which would necessarily mean painful choices in return for lasting constitutional rewards.

In the back of Unionists’ minds was the fear that if they did not seize the opportunity then events might relegate them to the sidelines as the British and Irish governments imposed their own version of Joint Authority for Northern Ireland.

Mr Blair’s great skill lay in finding and applying the right balance between these conflicting agenda, in turn using his alchemist’s gifts of cajoling, threatening and charming implacable enemies into seeing the merit of finally working together in a spirit of mutual respect, if not regard.

Like a satisfying Hollywood movie, Mr Blair managed to roll music and credits just last month with the previously unimaginable images of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness wreathed in smiles as, together, they descended the marble staircase of the Stormont Parliament.

It was Mr Blair’s version of the moment in 1993 when President Clinton shepherded Yasser Arafat and Yitzak Rabin into photogenic peace.

Mr Rabin was subsequently murdered by an Israeli extremist and replaced by the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, whose own reluctance to do a deal with the Palestinians – at a time when there seemed a very real prospect of a two-nation solution – resulted in his drubbing in the 1999 election by the Labour leader Ehud Barak.

President Clinton ultimately failed to achieve the final breakthrough at Camp David in 2000 when Mr Barak’s land for peace package was not accepted by Mr Arafat, a debacle which culminated in the Second Intifada.

Since then the failures of the late Mr Arafat’s Fatah movement radicalised the Palestinian streets and created the rise of Hamas, the Islamist party which refuses to recognise Israel’s existence.

But even with attitudes on both sides of the divide now so polarised, it does not mean that the Oslo process – and the Camp David package prepared by President Clinton and Mr Barak – cannot yet succeed.

Mr Blair is unlikely to accept maximalist positions from either side. Hamas is a force which is not going away: he will work to convince it to formally accept Israel’s right to exist – a position which its leader-in-exile Khaled Meshal has already accepted as «fact».

On the other side, he will endeavour to persuade an Israeli leader – and the likelihood is that in the near future it will be either Mr Netanyahu or Mr Barak again – that no further time must be lost in making the hard decisions about withdrawal from the West Bank, dismantling of Jewish settlements and the creation of a unique bi-state capital in Jerusalem.

He will also have to convince the neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia and Syria, of the need for a unified and consistent policy approach to Israel and Palestine.

It will require exceptional skills of cunning, persistence and steadfastness – all of which Mr Blair has exhibited during the punishing, marathon negotiations which led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and the «Stormont Love-In» of last month.

«He showed determination right from the beginning, he got into deep engagements with the personalities,» said Mr Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach.

«He was never afraid to get into a huge amount of detail … he remained steadfast in his determination that we could build trust and confidence.

«It’s tricky but he believes that if there is direct engagement and if there is determined and persistent engagement, and exactly what he said to me was, like Northern Ireland, where you just have to stay at it,» Mr Ahern said.

«He thinks, and I believe he’s right, that if you have hands-on, persistent engagement then you can make real progress.»

If Mr Blair has an appropriate measure of good fortune to match his commitment to the task then it is possible that the prime minister who was so publicly admired during the early part of his tenure will once more spread his charisma around the Middle East, charming and convincing the main players in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Gaza City, Jerusalem and Damascus that the inconceivable is really possible after all – and holding up the «Belfast Miracle» as an example.