x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Blair, the Middle East's eternal optimist

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Middle East envoy for The Quartet, will likely return to Jerusalem in the New Year and say Gaza can become a catalyst for useful change.

LONDON // When Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, returns to Jerusalem in the New Year to resume his efforts to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians he will remind himself that the impossible can happen. Gaza, he will say, to widespread disbelief, can become a catalyst for useful change. He hopes the carnage there will show that violence achieves nothing. Only when reasonable people unite against extremists can progress be made.

Mr Blair, who became Middle East envoy for The Quartet, the UN, the EU, the United States and Russia, when he left Downing Street spends a week every month at the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem. Optimism like his is essential for anyone trying to resolve conflicts. Recent history has seen the resolution, through negotiation (and occasionally sheer fatigue ) of apparently insoluble conflicts around the world; in Kenya, Cyprus, Lebanon, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere. But the men and women who have negotiated truces and peace treaties often faced scepticism, that they could never succeed.

Mr Blair will say that everyone thought he was mad when he promised to bring peace to Northern Ireland after he became prime minister in 1997. A year later, with the Good Friday Agreement, he persuaded the Provisional IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, and the Unionists, and assorted para-militaries, that continued violence was pointless. Today, former leading members of the Provisionals, such as Martin McGuinness, and diehard Unionists, such as Ian Paisley, who once hated each other, now share power - and jokes. Gerry Adams, once Sinn Fein's apologist for IRA violence, tours the world preaching that you should talk to your enemies rather than blow them up.

Mr Blair often says that Israelis and Palestinians must learn from Northern Ireland. However, he knows that there are no meaningful similarities between the two conflicts. He talks about Northern Ireland for two reasons. First, because he is famously vain and enjoys the myth that he was responsible for peace in the province. And, second, more credibly, because he wants people in the Middle East to believe that a solution to their problems can be found.

The conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics, who wanted a united Ireland, and Protestants, who did not, ended because both sides were exhausted by three decades of violence. Nothing was resolved. Mr Blair knows this cannot happen in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Treaties must be signed. Territory must be divided. There can be no fudge. A few days before Israel launched its assault, Mr Blair told an Israeli journalist that Hamas had to be persuaded to recognise Israel's right to exist - as the PLO did in 1993 and again in 1998 - or it must be removed from the political map.

He contrasted Gaza with the West Bank, where a secular Palestinian government was slowly demonstrating that the old days, of corruption and inefficiency, were over. Most Israelis and Palestinians, he said, accepted that there must be two states, Israel and Palestine. The devil was not only in the detail but in persuading the two sides they could trust each other. There was an agreement on the basics of what should happen - which was inconceivable a few years ago. The challenge now, Mr Blair keeps saying, is to turn the theory of two states into reality.

Mr Blair is certain to point out to Palestinians that Israel had a duty to protect its people from a daily barrage of Hamas rockets. But he will also tell Jerusalem it has boosted support for Hamas. Ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, he believes, must learn to trust each other. Only then will agreements negotiated by politicians have a chance of success. sfreeman@thenational.ae