x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Trust a must for Middle East peace process, says Blair

A lasting peace can be achieved, but only if conditions on the ground improve and trust is restored to both sides, Tony Blair said.

WASHINGTON // A lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians can be achieved, but only if conditions on the ground improve and trust is restored to both sides, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, said this week during a visit to the US capital. Mr Blair, now the envoy for the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators- the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia - said he believed the two sides could eventually agree on a two-state solution, noting that some "immense gains" have been made in the past year. But he said the biggest obstacle to peace is that the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians fail to match the lofty rhetoric of peace talks.

"Until now, the reality on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians has not passed what I would call the minimum threshold of credibility for the political negotiation to succeed. Not for the Israelis on security, not for the Palestinians on lifting the occupation," Mr Blair said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-profit think tank based in New York. "The political process and changing reality have to march in lockstep - that is the key to this issue - and until recently they haven't."

Israelis, for example, continue to question whether they have a partner for peace as rockets continue to be launched from the Gaza Strip, a coastal region from which they withdrew in 2005. Similarly, Palestinians distrust promises of statehood because Israel's government has failed to prevent Jewish settlers from building outposts on land earmarked for a future Arab state. Palestinians also continue to be restricted in their right to build and move throughout their territory.

Mr Blair said before talks could be successful at the highest levels, basic improvements and good faith gestures would be needed to change prevailing views at the lowest ones. Otherwise, he said, it is like trying to forge a peace agreement "on the top of a pyramid, whose foundations are as yet lopsided and uncertain". To that end, Mr Blair spoke of some promising developments that could lay better underpinning for a future peace accord.

The former prime minister lauded a newly trained Palestinian security force, which has assumed control of Nablus and Jenin and soon will be deployed to Hebron. He also praised economic advances in the West Bank, where the unemployment rate has dropped and some businesses are flourishing. In Bethlehem, for example, hotel occupancy has risen dramatically. And on the Christmas, the hotels will be full, Mr Blair said."It's happening," he said of a budding Palestinian independence. "It's got a huge way to go, but it is happening nonetheless". He also praised the emerging consensus among Arab countries that the 60-year-long conflict must finally be solved, saying a peace "would release forces of modernisation across the region".

"Arab nations, are now ready for peace," Mr Blair said. "Palestine is no longer a cause to be paraded symbolically, a rallying cry to motivate people." The former prime minister only briefly touched on the incoming president, Barack Obama, though he said Mr Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and the retired general James Jones as national security adviser were part of a "very strong team".

Mr Jones was appointed last year as special envoy for Middle East security and was involved in the training of Palestinian security forces in neighbouring Jordan. Still, Mr Blair said some wide gaps remain in the talks, particularly the question of how to proceed in Gaza, which is currently controlled by Hamas. "One thing is for sure, we cannot maintain the status quo in Gaza for another year," he said. "There can only be one Palestinian state, it will combine Gaza and the West Bank."

Mr Blair offered few details on how to proceed in the troubled region, where a tentative ceasefire has held up since the summer, but he spoke of the possibility of Hamas joining the political process or being ousted in the next round of elections, which are set for 2010 at the latest. "We're going to try and make sure that people with a moderate and modern view of the future of Palestine win, or we'd better get the right measures in place to do that," he said of the elections.

Mr Blair also mentioned another traditional sticking point between the two sides: the partition of Jerusalem, a city that is considered holy to both Muslims and Jews. He said there are "all sorts of creative and intelligent ways" to approach the future of the holy city, but declined to offer more detail. Despite the pitfalls, Mr Blair said that since taking over his post 15 months ago, he remains optimistic that a broad peace agreement can eventually be reached. "I've learnt that the Israeli-Palestinian issue, seemingly intractable, can be solved," he said. "And I have reinforced my belief that, indeed, it must be."

sstanek@thenational.ae