x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Palestinians attack Middle East envoy Tony Blair for 'favouring Israel'

Palestine leadership debated asking the US, EU, Russia and the UN to sack Tony Blair, the Middle East Quartet envoy, saying the former British PM had become little more than an 'Israeli diplomat' since assuming his envoy role in 2007.

Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad (left) looks at Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair during a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York last month. AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel Dunand
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad (left) looks at Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair during a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York last month. AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel Dunand

JERUSALEM // Tony Blair, the Middle East Quartet envoy, has come under mounting criticism by Palestinian officials, who accuse him of favouring Israel and shirking his peacemaking responsibilities.

The Palestinian leadership discussed last week whether to formally request the Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and the UN - to sack Mr Blair, the former British prime minister, said Nabil Shaath, a senior figure in the Fatah faction.

Despite Palestinian dissatisfaction with Mr Blair's work, the Quartet's efforts to lure the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table appear to be having some success.

Yesterday, Israel welcomed the latest Quartet initiative aimed at restarting peace negotiations, and called on the Palestinians to accept the proposal.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement: "While Israel has some concerns, it will raise them at the appropriate time." He called on the Palestinian Authority "to enter into direct negotiations without delay."

Mr Shaath said the Netanyahu statement was "not enough". Israel must freeze settlements and accept the West Bank's pre-1967 boundaries before talks can resume, he said.

The Quartet issued the proposal on September 23 after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, appealed for the UN to approve a Palestinian application for full membership.

Members of the group have been trying to put pressure on Mr Abbas to drop the statehood initiative, which the US has promised to veto.

The Quartet called for Israelis and Palestinians to agree within a month on how to resume negotiations with the goal of reaching a peace agreement by the end of 2012.

The plan largely toes the line for resuming talks laid out by Mr Netanyahu. It contains no preconditions on the many issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said: "Netanyahu will not convince anyone unless he announces his commitment to implementing Israel's commitments under the Road Map and the Quartet statement."

A key Palestinian condition for returning to talks is that Israel halt settlement construction. Few signs point to this demand being met, however. Last week, Mr Netanyahu's government prompted furious condemnation when he announced plans to build more than 1,000 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Gilo.

That decision, also criticised as violating the spirit of the newest Quartet proposal, reportedly drew a particularly angry response from Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She berated the Israeli leader in a telephone call on Friday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, because she had supported Israel in its opposition to the Palestinian plan to win UN statehood recognition.

Mr Netanyahu's office denied the incident in a statement yesterday, saying: "Our ties with the German government and Chancellor Merkel are good and close. When we have disagreements, they are resolved in good spirits."

The last round of direct negotiations collapsed last year because of Mr Netanyahu's refusal to extend a partial moratorium on settlement construction.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians say Mr Blair has done little to resolve these chronic disagreements.

Mr Shaath said that while the Palestinians ultimately refrained from seeking Mr Blair's resignation, because they did not want to embarrass him, frustration at his efforts has simmered. Mr Shaath told journalists in Ramallah over the weekend that Mr Blair had become little more than an "Israeli diplomat" since assuming his envoy role in 2007.

"He just really escaped all political responsibilities of his job," said Mr Shaath, who described Mr Blair as "parroting" Israeli demands.

Gradually, Mr Blair "reduced his role to asking the Israelis to take down a barrier here or a barrier there," he said. "We thought he would be a real support to the Palestinians."

Other prominent Palestinians have also spoken out against Mr Blair recently, including wealthy businessmen and activists.

An activist and former presidential candidate, Mustafa Barghouti, told Britain's Daily Telegraph last month that Mr Blair "has failed drastically in doing his main job, which is to make the Israelis really implement what they were supposed to be implementing." Mr Barghouti called on Mr Blair to resign.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

*With additional reporting by Bloomberg