TCS Daily

Blair and the Quest for Mid East Peace

By Rory Miller - May 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Unless Tony Blair makes a sudden and unexpected withdrawal from public life or cedes the premiership to his powerful chancellor Gordon Browne, Labour's third successive election victory provides him with one final chance to contribute to a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This is an objective that he has previously declared his own "personal priority" as well as a "central priority" of British foreign policy, and even the "single most pressing political challenge in our world".

Blair's determination to find a role for himself in any future Middle East peace will not bother Israeli politicians unduly. For in the diplomatic wilderness that is contemporary Europe, Israeli officials have clung tightly to what one has described as their "friendly relations and strong connection" with the British prime minister.

Certainly, Blair, in his dealings with the Sharon government, has attempted to bring to the table what a spokesman termed a "constructive spirit". He has also avoided the inflammatory, and even derogatory, language that other EU leaders have employed since the meltdown in EU-Israeli relations that occurred following the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000.

Moreover, on a substantive level, his government has also shown more understanding of Israeli concerns than many of its European counterparts. In April 2002, when most Europeans were accusing Israel of genocide in Jenin, it was the Blair government that opposed the decision to condemn Israel at the UN Human Rights Commission. France, Spain, Sweden, Portugal and Belgium backed the resolution.

Again, aware that Hamas was "literally trying to blow [up] this peace process" it was the Blair government that took the lead inside the EU in demanding a crackdown on the group. Thus while most other EU governments were busy tying themselves up in knots trying to work out how to present Hamas as a political party, Britain was urging the introduction of strict limits on charities raising funds for the organisation in Europe.

All this is to be commended and has led to a widely held belief (which even Conservative party officials sympathetic to Israel have grudgingly acknowledged) that Blair is one of the best friends Israel has ever had in Downing Street.

But Blair's motives must be placed in their proper context. Blair's approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict has very little to do with his religious faith. Though he is a committed Christian, he is not a Christian Zionist, a supporter of the restoration of Jews in the land of Israel in accordance with biblical prophecies. Nor has he taken a more conciliatory view of Israel than his EU partners as a way of asserting an independent British policy for Palestine. Indeed, as far back as 1998, during his government's first presidency of the EU, Blair underlined his commitment to coordinate Britain's Palestine policy with its EU partners.

And for the most part -- in deferring to the EU's Mid East envoy, and in opposing the Israeli isolation of the late Yasir Arafat, the building of the separation barrier and the targeting for assassination of Palestinian extremists, among much else -- he has honored that commitment.

Nor, as one senior French diplomat claimed in an interview with the Washington Post, can Blair's relatively sympathetic approach to Israel be explained by his obsession with keeping Washington happy. Rather, having found himself in the middle of an acrimonious breakdown in the transatlantic alliance his primary goal since 9/11 has been to minimize the extent that the Israel-Palestine conflict fuels tension between the US and EU.

This explains the Blair government's vehement opposition to the unilateral French proposal in early 2002 that the EU should recognise a Palestinian state as a starting point, not a concluding one, for peace negotiations. This also explains why Blair, unlike most other EU leaders who condemned President Bush's June 2002 statement calling on Arafat to give up political power, expressed understanding for these remarks and why, when his EU partners greeted Bush's subsequent endorsement of Israel's unilateral disengagement plan for Gaza with barely concealed contempt, Blair described it as giving the Palestinians "a chance to create a reformed, just and free government.

There is no doubt that Blair's conviction that the Israel-Palestine conflict must not be allowed to further erode EU-US ties and that (in the words of British foreign minister Jack Straw) "any [EU] attempt to push for a solution without American support would be short-sighted and self-defeating" has, on occasion, been beneficial to Israeli interests. But it is also true that when the he has felt that the best way to bring the EU closer to Washington has been to adopt a stance detrimental to Israel he has not hesitated to do so.

Throughout the Iraq campaign, and especially following Arafat's death in November 2004, Blair expended much of the political capital he earned since 9/11 in trying to influence President Bush to make concessions on the Palestine issue that Israel opposed, but which he felt help restore US-EU ties and reduce resentment over the Iraq war in Europe.

During his visit to Washington in late 2004 Blair urged Bush to support the convening of an international conference on the peace process, something that Israel has been opposed to for decades, but which has been an official objective of the EU since 1986. Blair also expressed support for the EU's attempt to re-launch a "fast track" version of the Road Map for Middle East Peace, which is really nothing more than a restatement of France's 2002 proposal for immediate recognition of a Palestinian state.

Blair opposed this option in 2002 because he believed that it would damage US-EU ties. He supports it now because he believes it will bring the US and EU closer together. Israel should welcome any constructive contribution that Blair can make to fostering peace during his final stint as prime minister. But it should not forget that, his foreign policy priority is to rebuild the EU-US alliance.

"If my head should buy her a castle in France, I would not fail to lose it", the great Elizabethan explorer Sir Walter Raleigh said of his fickle patron Queen Elizabeth I. A return to EU-US harmony and cooperation is Blair's "castle in France". Israel should mind its head.

Rory Miller is Senior Lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King's College, London. His book Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004 was recently published by Irish Academic Press


TCS Daily Archives