You’ve got to admire Tony Blair’s tenacity. Despite his terrible failures in Iraq and with the Palestinian Authority, the former British prime minister continues to pontificate about the Middle East’s ills and cures.
Seven years after he was appointed as the special envoy for the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia), the occupied territories of Palestine are still under siege. And 11 years after he co-sponsored the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the country is falling apart.
But don’t expect Mr. Blair to reconsider, admit mistakes or take responsibility for his blunders. Unfazed by criticism, he argues that irrespective of their occupation, Iraq and Palestine would in any case be in turmoil.
Is Mr. Blair “mad,” as the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, mocked? Is he “useless, useless, useless,” as one Palestinian official charged?
Actually, he’s neither.
To his supporters, Mr. Blair is a farsighted politician who hoped to restrain President George W. Bush, who made up his mind to attack Iraq after 9/11. Mr. Blair later invested his political capital and his good rapport with Washington to help advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.
And to be fair, it is wrong to blame Mr. Blair for the quartet’s paralysis over the Palestinian Authority — in light of the disagreements among its members.
The problem with Mr. Blair is far more sinister. After transforming British politics in the 1990s, the ambitious politician detected an opportunity after 9/11 to transform the Middle East through American power.
It was Mr. Blair who, just days before the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, officially linked the invasion of Iraq to the Palestinian Authority by underlining the strategic importance of promising peace in Palestine in order to wage war against Iraq, referring to his approach as “evenhandedness.” Likewise, it was he who pressed for Mr. Bush to initiate the quartet and the “road map for peace” to deflect Arab pressure.
During their 2002 summit meeting in Beirut, the Arabs offered Israel the most generous compromise ever: full Arab recognition of the state of Israel and normalization of relations in return for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and a negotiated right of return for Palestinian refugees. But at the insistence of Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush designed their initiative to forestall the Arab peace proposal and turn it into a footnote in their three-year road map to nowhere.
And finally, it was Mr. Blair who carved out for himself the new position of special envoy for the quartet in June 2007 — announced just hours after he stepped down as Britain’s prime minister. The position has helped him gain access to various Arab and world leaders — for several of whom his consulting business, Tony Blair Associates, has subsequently provided services.
A natural panderer to power, Mr. Blair morphed his complicity with the United States over Iraq into a new complicity with Israel. The assumption that operates is that schmoozing with the powerful is the only way to make a difference.
So while Mr. Blair worked to reform the Palestinian Authority’s finances, security and governance, he turned a blind eye as Israel expanded its illegal settlements and tightened its hold on the autonomous territories. In the process, Mr. Blair helped render the Palestinian Authority more, not less, dependent on Israel. Instead of protecting the Palestinians from the Israeli settlers, Palestinian security forces have since been protecting Israeli settlers from Palestinian resentment.
That’s why it was no coincidence that Mr. Blair attacked the Palestinian leadership’s decision to seek United Nations recognition of the Palestinian state, calling it “deeply confrontational.” The Israelis showered their friend with praise. But the Palestinians, whom the special envoy was meant to serve, accused Mr. Blair of talking like an “Israeli diplomat, selling their policies” — a new variant of an older critique of Mr. Blair as an American diplomat, or “Bush’s poodle,” selling White House policies.
If there was any doubt about where Mr. Blair stands, his recent statements confirm the perception that he’s now the puppy of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Blair has argued that the Palestinians’ internal divisions and the constraints on their leadership are of their own making, and have nothing to do with nearly five decades of Israeli occupation.
Mr. Blair also dismisses all links between the rise of radical Islamist groups and foreign interventions, cheering Israel’s role as a key player in the Western campaign against Islamist extremism. This mind-set is precisely the problem. In fact, the recent history of the region shows a direct cause-and-effect relationship between occupation and religious extremism. For example, Israel’s occupation and repression of the Palestinians produced Hamas. Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon produced Hezbollah. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan grew out of the Russian invasion and occupation. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a response to the American invasion.
It isn’t that Mr. Blair is ignorant of the history, but he’s a believer himself — one who is apparently disposed to say anything to defend his own rather fundamentalist positions about the Islamic world. He has been vocal in favor of American and Western military actions in Iraq and Syria, just as he supported the army’s coup d’état in Egypt and defended Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s crackdown on the opposition.
These are the views of Dick Cheney and American neoconservatives, not Barack Obama. Fortunately, the president of the United States — agree with him or not — has taken a far more sober and nuanced approach on all of these issues than the ones preached by the quartet’s presumed peace envoy.
Unlike Mr. Blair, Mr. Obama reckons Israel shouldn’t wait for the region’s tectonic changes to take their course before allowing for Palestinian freedom and independence. It’s high time he let Tony go.
Marwan Bishara is a senior political analyst at Al Jazeera and the author of The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions.