x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Blair sees possibility of Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough

The UN's special Middle East envoy says there could be a breakthrough in the peace process in weeks.

LONDON // There could be a breakthrough in diplomatic moves to establish peace between Israel and the Palestinians within a few weeks, Tony Blair, the UN's special Middle East envoy, predicted yesterday. The former British prime minister told a committee of British MPs that the month of June would be "critical" to efforts to find a way forward.

He suggested that on Thursday Barack Obama would use a speech in Egypt to set out a detailed agenda for the new US administration's "serious undertaking" in the Middle East. There were also other discussions going on, he said, but he declined to reveal the details when he appeared before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"I think the desire at the present time, frankly, is to see if we can get this going again," Mr Blair said. "I think June will be a very critical month in this whole business." Mr Blair claimed he had achieved some notable successes in assisting development in the Palestinian territories since taking up the role as the Middle East envoy for the Quartet - the UN, EU, United States and Russia - two years ago.

But he suggested that recent political developments, presumably referring to the Gaza invasion in December and the election of a right-wing government in Israel in February, had presented new obstacles. However, he said he believed that the commitment to the peace process by Mr Obama, whom he has been advising recently, would bear fruit. "I think at some point over the next few weeks there will emerge a way forward for this," he said. "There is a lot of thinking that will be done by the Israeli government internally, by the Arab world, by ourselves as a quartet and the American administration.

"I think that people want to see is that there is a positive way forward we can achieve here." Mr Blair, who said he now spends between seven and 10 days each month in the Middle East, pointed to improvements in housing, tourism, mobile telephone systems and movement for the Palestinian people among his achievements. "I can say that there's been significant progress made but, frankly, in the last nine months it's been extremely difficult whilst there has been a situation of virtual political paralysis on the Israeli side, the transition in the US and then, of course, the divisions on the Palestinian side," he said.

But he said he felt that since the US elections there had been a "new sense of momentum towards peace" with Mr Obama's White House "fully committed" to the region. Mr Blair also said he believed the Arab world was demonstrating "a renewed desire for partnership" as it realised that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement could have much wider implications for stability throughout the region, including Iran.

"If, instead of a dynamic that moves towards conflict, you have a dynamic that moves towards peace, it gets harder for anyone, in this case the Iranian leadership, to impose a sense of conflict or inevitability of conflict on the region," he said. Although Mr Blair remains optimistic that a US-led drive could result in a breakthrough, there remains grave uncertainty about the attitude of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who last week rejected Mr Obama's call to stop building in the occupied West Bank.

Mr Blair and Mr Netanyahu met recently but the latter refused to be drawn on whether or not Israel would accept a Palestinian state. Although Mr Blair's responsibility as envoy concentrates on helping rebuild the Palestinian economy and its institutions, rather than on brokering a peace deal, his efforts have not impressed all Palestinians. Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament, said recently: "If I am honest, I would say that his mission was a failure."

Making matters worse for Mr Blair recently has been the renewed outbreak of fighting between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank. However, his tone yesterday reflected the optimistic mood he was in when he answered questions before US Senate foreign relations committee in mid-May. He insisted then, as he has insisted for years, that there was no workable alternative to a two-state solution. He believes both sides want it but both doubt that it can be achieved.

"The opportunity is there," Mr Blair said, "but it won't remain if not seized. As President Obama has recognised, this is the right time to seize it." Mr Blair remains convinced - and appears to have persuaded Mr Obama - that a Palestinian state must include all the land captured by Israel in 1967. dsapsted@thenational.ae