Steven Erlanger
The New York Times
December 13, 2007 - 12:55pm

Tony Blair had that practiced politician’s half grin, his eyes in semi-focus, as the Palestinian minister of tourism, Khouloud Daibes, showed him around a display of Palestinian products at the Chamber of Commerce here Tuesday night. Mr. Blair, the former British prime minister and now the Western envoy for Palestinian development, posed for photos with businessmen and praised the quality of the local marble tiles.

When presented with a Bethlehem specialty, a nativity scene carved inside the root of an olive tree, Mr. Blair oohed in admiration. He barely blinked when Ms. Daibes told him that the gift was special, because it was fashioned from a 200-year-old tree “uprooted by the Israelis.”

Mr. Blair had come to Bethlehem to promote Western tourism to the holy sites of the West Bank, one of the ways he hopes to quickly improve Palestinian economic life. He intended to show by his presence, and his willingness to spend the night in a well-protected hotel, that “Bethlehem is safe for tourism and a good place to come,” he said, even as scattered, and no doubt celebratory, gunfire could be heard outside.

When asked why his own British government currently advises citizens “against all but essential travel” to Bethlehem, and the United States urges citizens to “defer” all travel to the West Bank, Mr. Blair’s response was smooth: “Well, I think it’s time to reconsider this travel advice. I’m here to say that Bethlehem is a safe place to come and stay overnight.”

Peace conferences like the recent one in Annapolis, Md., were important, he said, “but these conferences must translate into progress on the ground.” That is “the real test” of Israeli intentions to ease restrictions on movement and access in the West Bank as the Palestinians improve their security forces, he said. He wants Israel, which bans all its citizens from the West Bank except in special circumstances, to “fast track” tourism here.

It is vital “to align the facts on the ground, the reality, with the politics” in order to strengthen the two leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, Mr. Blair said in an interview here. “What will empower Olmert is genuine Palestinian progress on security, and what will empower Abbas is genuine Israeli help, consistent with that security progress, on lifting restrictions and the burden of occupation.”

Mr. Blair, 54, already has a major career behind him, with more than 10 years as prime minister of a country that likes to think it punches above its weight. So what to do with himself? A Christian of strong belief, he sees a chance in his new job, as the representative of the so-called quartet — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — to help solve the 60-year-old mess in the Middle East by helping Palestinians create a secure, peaceful and viable state.

“I think there’s nothing of greater importance in the world than to try to resolve this issue,” Mr. Blair said in the interview over a glass of Bethlehem red wine. But the religious importance of the Middle East, he conceded, is “a very important part of, if you like, the emotional context in which I decided, crazy though all my friends told me it was, to do this.”

Mr. Blair is not a “muscular Christian” of British colonial days, but he said that his life was infused by faith and that he intended to start a foundation “on religious interfaith” cooperation in the next few months.

He spoke with feeling of standing on the Mount of Temptation in Jericho, visiting the Church of the Nativity here and Mount Nebo, in nearby Jordan, where Moses is said to have viewed the promised land he could not enter. “These are some of the most moving things you can experience,” he said. “It’s an incredible moment for a Christian.”

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is important in the religiously charged atmosphere of this century, he said, after the sharp political and ideological clashes of the last one. “The threat that’s arisen bizarrely in the 21st century is that people of different cultures and religions can’t work in peace and harmony and respect with each other, and this dispute is one of huge symbolic importance,” he said. “If it were resolved, it would, in my view, launch the 21st century on a benign cultural path.”

Mr. Blair had just come from the Persian Gulf, where he lobbied Arab leaders to spend more of their nearly $100-a-barrel oil income on the Palestinians. Next Monday in Paris, he will be a co-chairman of the first meeting in years of donor countries. It is expected that the participants will pledge aid to Mr. Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, an economist who has prepared a 36-page plan of economic, institutional and security reform.

The three-year plan, called “Building a Palestinian State,” is explicit about Palestinian responsibility for some aspects of the calamitous state of the economy, saying, “While the stalled peace process and the tightening grip of the occupation have played a powerful role in shaping events, we acknowledge we have given insufficient attention to shortcomings in governance, law and order, and basic service delivery.”

Guided in part by Mr. Blair, the plan, which was provided by Palestinians to The New York Times, says that “we are now absolutely determined to rebuild the trust of our citizens and our international partners,” including “bringing the rule of law to the occupied territory and combating violence.”

In 2008, the plan asks for $1.361 billion in budget support and $427 million more in development financing.

This is not Mr. Fayyad’s first effort to overhaul the Palestinian Authority. But Mr. Blair argues that with the combination of international support for a final peace treaty, new Palestinian efforts to build a state “from the bottom up” and a new Israeli vow to ease restrictions on the Palestinians as security improves, the situation is more promising than before. This holds true, he says, even with Gaza run by Hamas, which opposes the entire effort as useless collaboration with Israel and Washington.

But Mr. Blair, like Mr. Fayyad, emphasizes that reform can work only if Israel loosens its grip, removing key internal checkpoints that prevent Palestinians from traveling easily within the West Bank.

Senior Israeli military officials say they believe it will be at least two years before the army can make significant withdrawals from the West Bank. Mr. Blair sighed. “The Israelis will take a lot of convincing on security issues,” he said. “I understand that when they see what is happening in Gaza, they’re not going to allow this to happen on the West Bank.”

On the other hand, he believes that “the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are peaceful, decent people who want two states, and there is no doubt at all that the effect of the restrictions and the occupation is significantly to diminish their lives and their economic prosperity.”

Outside, across the street from Mr. Blair’s hotel, the British pop artist Banksy has painted one of his subversive murals on a concrete wall. It shows a dove with an olive branch in its mouth. The dove wears a bulletproof vest, and centered over its heart is a red target, as if viewed through a rifle sight.


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