ZIAD ASALI: Our guest today is a global leader who requires no introduction. His name, his face and his achievements are recognized all over the world. As a result, there is not much that I need to say other than to welcome him, thank him for being with us and invite him to the podium.
But please allow me to say a few instructive and meaningful things about him. He worked his way through the UK Parliament representing the Labor Party as a member, then as its leader, and finally to the 1997 victory which made him Prime Minister ending an 18-year Conservative Party’s hold on power. In his three terms, and a decade as Prime Minister, he played a profound role in pressing the White House to put the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at the top of its Middle East priorities, even while its focus was on Iraq. He became a global leader whose stature and luster were not diminished by his departure from office.
I have read his book Tony Blair, A Journey, and would recommend it effusively to any person interested in politics. Based on this book, and having spoken to people who know him intimately and having observed his rise and rise, I am tempted to express a few things about him. He is someone who wants to make the United Kingdom, and then the world, a better place. He led a party that he thought was going down the wrong path and steered it, first to power, and then to govern and bring about change. He understood the critical need to define policy and had the skills to manage the politics to implement it. His mastery of communication made him a target to charges of spin by his political opponents who failed to understand his genuine commitment to policy. His formidable ability to focus on one issue, to grip it as he says, to prioritize and to act, has made him the transformative British Prime Minister that he has been.
Since leaving his office at Downing Street, he brought his unique combination of talents and skills to the world arena where he has been at the forefront of tackling the largest issues of our times. He has become the Quartet Representative to the Middle East. While doing this he has also established The Africa Governance Initiative, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, The Tony Blair Sports Foundation and he also leads the Breaking the Climate Deadlock Initiative. It is hard to imagine any other person on earth who would have the energy to engage in this range of issues, and to grasp their complexities as he delivers solutions and results.
Yet I know that he spends most of his time focusing on the Middle East, which is his real passion, where he applies ceaseless efforts to help the Palestinians build their institutions and their economy in preparation for their inevitable state.
This audience is interested in hearing from Mr. Blair about the Middle East, and in particular about the work of the Quartet in Palestine, about his views on the political implications of the institution- and state- building program and how he thinks we can seriously reach a final peace agreement. Who and when will someone grip this issue to deliver the Palestine/Israel version of the Good Friday agreement that he delivered for Ireland. We are also interested in hearing his views about religion and conflict, as well as the issue of international intervention in which he played a pivotal role.
Mr. Blair will deliver his remarks momentarily and he has graciously consented to take questions from the audience. We have cards that our people will collect from the audience and I will present the questions to Mr. Blair.
Mr. Blair’s remarks are on record. However, the question and answer session is off the record.
Please help me welcome the Right Honorable Tony Blair.
TONY BLAIR: Thank you Ziad. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for that kind introduction. Thank you for that plug of my book, which is most gracious of you. Thank you to the American Task Force on Palestine for giving me the opportunity to discuss these issues with you.
You know, since leaving office to be involved in the Middle East, religious interfaith and breaking the deadlock on climate change, it’s a slightly tough agenda quite frankly. But, one of the things I learned in, it was actually 18 years not 19 years of opposition and we counted every year so we remember a bit like I guess you guys do. You know one of the things I learned was that you’ve always got to keep yourself focused on the possibility of eventual success. Sometimes, it seemed a little distant, I might say during those long years of opposition. I always remember after we’d lost our fourth election in a row I met one of my party activists who said to me “The people have now voted against us four times… what’s wrong with them?” Which, it gave you a certain kind of explanation maybe as to why we were so long in opposition. So, what is also necessary whenever you’re faced with a challenge is to reconsider, recalibrate thinking as well.
Look, let me explain to you first of all how I see this situation and explain perhaps also a little bit about what I actually do there since I’m out in Israel and Palestine two or sometimes even three times a month. I spend a lot of time going to the West Bank, not so much for obvious reasons in Gaza though I have been there and I spend a lot of time talking to the leaders of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. But, I also basically work for the Quartet which as you know is this rather extraordinary body which whenever I’m asked to explain I say “Well, my political masters are the coalition between Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States of America,” and people say “What? They all agree?” and I say “Well, it’s not quite like that.” So, the work that I do is very much on the ground in respect to the economy, in respect to building capacity and supporting the state building exercise of Prime Minister Fayyad. That is my principal role.
Of course you get involved in the politics, necessarily and frankly everything to do with this situation is intensely political. Just to give you one other important piece of information about my own beliefs in relation to this. I am and always have been an advocate of Palestinian statehood. I don’t think there is any solution that I can envisage to this issue that does not involve an independent, sovereign Palestinian state and I’ve always believed that and I believe that still. And, when people sometimes say to me, as they do, by the way people on both sides occasionally, they say “Yeah, the two state solution… come on.” I say, “What’s the alternative?” Because a one state solution, I can’t quite see it myself in anything that remotely resembles peace. So, I am, have been and always will be an advocate for that solution.
Why is it though, and I’m not going to do this for the purposes of help and support for the process, but why is it that if I said to you “Right, hands up, those people in the room that believe we’re going to get a Palestinian state in the next year.” I might not get a full show of hands. Right? Why is it? And this is where I think we have to analyze the past few years and then try not to chart a different purpose but somewhat of a different strategy to achieve that purpose. The reason I think is very simple and I’d like to start it really from the year 2000.
In the year 2000 there was the attempt, courageously led by President Clinton, to bring about an agreement. It didn’t succeed and each side has its narrative as to why it didn’t. Afterwards came the Intifada and each side has its narrative as to what happened and why that happened. Then we also had the disengagement from Gaza and each side again has its narrative about what happened then. Then we had in 2007 the takeover by Hamas of Gaza and many sides have their narrative about what happened there.
What this really did was it gave the process a fundamental credibility gap on both sides which meant that even at the same time as people said “Yes, we fully accept and believe that the two state solution is the right solution…[they also said] but tell me how it’s going to be achieved?” On the Palestinian side the weight of occupation increased. On the Israeli side they believe that they were then dealing with a split Palestinian politics and an existential security challenge.
So, we actually reflect this credibility issue in the way we now talk about the two state solution. If you listen carefully to how most of us talk about it we talk now about a secure state of Israel and a viable state of Palestine and those adjectives reflect that credibility gap. The question that people have in their minds as to whether, if you’re an Israeli you will get not a state of Israel but a secure state of Israel and the question [that is] in the minds of the Palestinians [is] that yes it’s all very well to talk about a Palestinian state but that state also has to be a viable state. And, that’s the issue now, which really brings me to core point which is how in these circumstances when it’s not simply possible to recapture and retake where we were in the year 2000 and say “Right, let’s just, let’s erase the memory of what’s happened in those previous years and just retake from where we left off in the year 2000,” it’s not possible to do that because what has actually changed in the meantime is a series of things that impinge directly not just on credibility in theory but the practicality of statehood.
So, in my judgment we are in a position where the core challenge now is to rebuild the credibility of the process, to rebuild trust that such a process will lead to an outcome of a secure state of Israel and a viable state of Palestine. The key to doing that, in my judgment again, is not just a political negotiation described as top down but also a state building exercise ground up that gives people a sense that there is not a negotiation carrying on disconnected from the reality of people’s lives. So, my strategy for this is to change lives, which changes minds and to combine that political negotiation with a ground up state building exercise that gives the Palestinian people the belief that statehood is going to be the eventual evolution of this process of state building and gives Israel [the sense] that a state of Palestine will be well governed, properly run and a secure and stable partner.
Now, the work therefore that we do in my office and the work that we do in conjunction with Senator Mitchell and the State Department and the other partners in the Quarter is to focus first on supporting Salam Fayyad and the state building exercise. What does that mean? It means for example in the rule of law there has been immense progress both in training security forces for the Palestinians, deploying them, building a civil police, the rule of law, courts, prisons, prosecutors, all those things that go up to make critical statehood.
Prime Minister Fayyad has also introduced a whole new set of rules in relation to business, in relation to Palestinian finances, in relation to the integrity of the Palestinian system and that state building exercise has been supported by a commitment that we helped organize at the Paris Conference in December 2007 which resulted in a big commitment of money to the Palestinian Authority. Look, I used to sit through, as Prime Minister, many pledging conferences and frankly you know you got a lot more pledges than you actually ever really received. But, in this instance actually there has been real support given to that Palestinian Authority state building program.
In addition to that, though there is an immense way to go, we have been focusing on removing or opening core checkpoints and access and movement points, on issues to do with extending the Palestinian security presence, there are proposals for the building, as you well know, of a new city, Rawabi, other proposals for extending the ability of Palestinians to develop not just Area A but in Area B and Area C as well, to improve lives in East Jerusalem, to build the possibility of a genuine base for tourism, which of course in Palestine is a huge unexploited asset, in respect of crossings and even in respect of Gaza where we have been working not just to make sure that we get humanitarian provision into Gaza but also, and critically, for reconstruction, for water, for sanitation, for electricity and so on.
The purpose of all of this, in respect of which before you say it I will say it, there is a huge way to go still, but the purpose of all of this is to build capacity to run a state on the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority are in charge, to give people the sense that there is actually genuine movement, that it is possible to have, that improves people’s lives. In respect of Gaza, to get to the point where we leave to decide what in my view is a mistaken view which is if Gaza is isolated somehow Hamas is weakened. In my view it is absolutely clear improving the lives of people in Gaza improve the prospects of peace. So, if we are able to do this then in my view we will build support for that political negotiation.
Now you only have to state how much we have to do to realize how far we have to go but I ask you just for a moment to imagine that we were able to get those improvements in people’s lives; that we were able to add to the agenda not merely the traditional things that we talked about on access and movement but actually improving lives in East Jerusalem and Area C and so on. If we were about to get those changes that we’re looking for in Gaza and we were able to do that in support of a political negotiation then I think the difference would be fundamental and considerable not just in terms of people’s lives but in terms of the credibility of the process. So, in my view that is the challenge right at this present time. In other words, if all we do is simply have a conventional political negotiation then I think we will continue to go round in circles rather than give clear demonstrable support to the state building exercise that the Palestinians are engaged in that actually answers the security issue of the Israelis but at the same time builds the capacity both economically and in security terms, and politically for Palestinian statehood.
A word about the negotiation, the negotiation, mind you, has to be conducted in a reasonably confidential and guided way. In other words, it won’t be enough, and I learned this during the course of Northern Ireland; I can tell you that in all the meetings we had in Northern Ireland, very rarely did we make huge progress on core difficult issues by everyone sitting in a formal meeting around the table. But, we did make an immense amount of progress when we were able to have confidential clear discussions often over a period of time, often in circumstances where there weren’t note takers and scribblers around noting everything down but where you could get to the point where people felt confident enough to start moving their positions.
We learned one other thing in the Northern Ireland process that myself and Senator Mitchell both engaged in and that is the importance of not giving up. You know, I know the skepticism there is about whether it’s possible to get this deal and to make this change. You wouldn’t have to be out in that region for a millisecond not to feel that skepticism. You know, I find it even when I’m back in my own home country. You know people kind of say “Well what are you doing now then?” and I say “Well, I’m helping in the Middle East peace process,” and they go “Oh, good luck.” I hear “What do you want to go and do that for?” So I know and I feel that skepticism.
I just want to say to you though that throughout the whole of the course of the Northern Ireland process we had exactly the same skepticism. But, actually in the end we managed to do it. And we managed to do it partly because we didn’t give up but we managed to do it for another reason. This is a reason that has its own echo in something happening in the Middle East now.
We, in the end, were able to create peace in Northern Ireland for many reasons but one of the reasons we did it was because actually the circumstances outside changed. The Irish people were part of the European Union as Britain was part of the European Union. We wanted to get a cooperative relationship together. America was willing to play a part in bringing the sides together. Suddenly, what seemed to be absolutely irreducible and irreversible as a source of conflict, people then said “Look, we’re in a new world, let’s try and sort it out,” and we did.
Today in the Middle East, from the Arab Peace Initiative onwards, the fact is we do actually have a consensus and desire within the region to reach that two state solution, not in every part of that region, not even in every part of every country of that region. But, the Arab Peace Initiative that was launched by the then Crown Prince Abdullah in 2002, the commitment to that still remains and that does give us our context in which we can reach peace.
Because when President Obama, at the very outset of his time as president, said that reaching peace is a strategic interest of America he said something very, very important indeed. He said that from now on this is an issue that isn’t just about peace making in the interests of Israelis or Palestinians, it’s a strategic interest of the whole of the world. I believe that it is. I believe that however difficult it is we can never afford to give up and I also believe despite all the pessimism that might be justified given the present impasse it is worth us continuing. It is worth us never yielding the ground to those rejectionists who do not want peace and it is worth carrying on until finally we get the deal done.