Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the Quartet’s Special Envoy on democratization of Palestinian institutions, or something, is reported now, after a visit to the tense West Bank city of Hebron this week, to be “astonished and appalled by life in the West Bank”, according to a report by The Guardian’s Middle East editor Ian Black.
Blair can’t be shocked about what’s going on in Gaza, of course, because he’s shunning Gaza — like all of the major diplomatic players lined up behind Washington-led efforts to convene a “meeting”, if not a “peace conference” on the Middle East in late November.
In his article, Black wrote that “Large parts of the West Bank’s ‘city of the patriarchs’ were ceded to Palestinian control a decade ago when Yasser Arafat was enjoying the mixed blessings of the Oslo self-rule agreement – which left 400 hardline, armed Jewish settlers in Hebron’s ancient centre. Mr Blair, the representative of the Quartet group of Middle East peacemakers, heard a good deal about their violent provocations … ‘Mr Blair was appalled by what we told him’, said Mats Lignell, spokesman for the international observers stationed here ‘temporarily’ in 1994 after a Jewish extremist from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba massacred 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque. Wednesday’s visit provided a rare glimpse of the former prime minister as he goes about what some have called his ‘mission impossible’. It might also be described as a mission invisible – his profile so uncharacteristically low he has all but disappeared, apart from a couple of bland interviews with Palestinian and Israeli media … Despite his low profile, Mr Blair has had to learn fast since starting work in July. The outward silence shrouds a learning curve that has been steep and shocking since the envoy began work in July. ‘Blair was really astonished and angry’, says the UN official who gave him a presentation on the devastating effects of Israel’s ‘security barrier’, settlements, checkpoints, and closures on the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories. ‘He asked very smart questions, though I did think that someone who was prime minister for so long should already have known these facts’….”
The Guardian article also reported that “With memories of Downing Street fading, Mr Blair now spends about a week a month working from East Jerusalem’s lovely old American Colony hotel. Its whitewashed walls are covered with sepia-tinted pictures of the British general Sir Edmund Allenby, who defeated the Turks in Palestine 90 years ago – months after the Balfour Declaration promising a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people set in train the events that created today’s conflict. Instead of policemen there are blue-uniformed UN guards at the door – and a steel grille. Visitors to his offices sit on a spacious roof terrace screened from view by newly-planted olive and fir saplings. A running machine has been brought in to ensure the boss can keep fit in days packed with meetings. The sofas are ornate, gilded and appropriately Ottoman-looking. Secrets, though, may be hard to keep: the evening Mr Blair arrived I spotted Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, slipping quietly out of the back door. Palestinian journalists were intrigued to see allies of the popular jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti leaving after talks. Policy advice comes from a 14-strong multinational team. A US state department official, a Spaniard loaned from the European commission, a Dutch economist and a Norwegian work alongside UN experts and a couple of FO Brits. The British embassy organised the first visit, but now the mission is self-supporting. ‘He works as much for the Poles as for us’, sniffed a UK diplomat. Projected first-year costs for the Jerusalem office, staff and security (including armoured cars) are around $8m … and met from a UN-administered trust fund [n.b., the U.N. Development Programme’s Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People — UNDP’s PAPP]. Attention is focused on plans for a detailed Palestinian ‘national economic and development agenda’ to be presented to an international donor conference in December. The ‘ownership’ will be Palestinian but Mr Blair is driving it. ‘He knows he has to produce some quick results’, says an official. ‘He doesn’t have long to make an impact’. Work is being done on linking up several existing projects. The headline concept, dear to the heart of the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, is a ‘secure economic zone’ for the Jericho area, where there is already a Japanese-financed plan for an agribusiness park and improved export access across the (Israeli-controlled) Allenby bridge to Jordan, en route for Gulf markets. Jericho is easy because it is small and quiet and there is no Israeli security presence in town. The downside, says Mr [Ghassan] Khatib, is that it is simply too small to make a difference. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian economist appointed prime minister after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June, had been keen to see an ambitious initiative in Nablus, the West Bank’s commercial capital and largest city. But Mr Blair’s view is that is too tough a nut to crack: the city is surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and there are regular raids by the Israeli army and Shin Bet security service … In the words of Zahi Khouri, one of several Palestinian businessmen advising Mr Blair: ‘He’s trying to find ways to revitalise the Palestinian economy while being sensitive to the Israeli paranoia about security’. That apparently also means not tackling the West Bank barrier either – at least for now … The Blair team is also pushing plans – training, financing, restructuring – to ensure the ramshackle Palestinian security forces operate more effectively. Legal and judicial reforms are needed too. The theory is that more professional troops and police will be able to tackle militant groups such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. That done, Israel could allow goods to move freely, creating jobs, attracting investment and loosening the stranglehold of occupation. In practice, the key question is whether Mr Barak, more hawkish than Mr Olmert, will deliver the goods that were denied to Jim Wolfensohn, Mr Blair’s predecessor as the Quartet envoy, who failed because Israel would never respect the key agreement on ‘movement and access’ negotiated by Ms Rice … It does not seem too gloomy to predict that Mr Blair’s low-profile Middle Eastern honeymoon may not have much longer to run. ‘It’s difficult for him to present a detailed plan because that’s the point both sides will start pelting him with rotten eggs and tomatoes since neither will like what he’s suggesting’, says a senior Israeli official. ‘He’s in a terrific position as long as he’s just working quietly, consulting and listening. The moment he puts something on the table is the moment his problems begin’…” Ian Black’s analysis of Tony Blair’s mission for the Quartet is published here.