Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tony Blair’s tangled web: The Quartet Representative and the peace process

Tony Blair stepped down as British prime minister in 2007 and immediately assumed the position of representative to the Quartet, the international body overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Against the background of mounting criticism at home over his role in the 2003 Iraq War, this profile examines the record of Blair’s activities in the Middle East over the past five years. The picture that emerges is one of rapid self-enrichment through murky consultancies and opaque business deals with Middle East dictators, and an official role (formally dedicated to Palestinian state-building) whose main results appear to be an unhappy Palestinian Authority and the perpetuation of the status quo.

On 27 June 2007, Tony Blair resigned as Britain’s prime minister after ten years in office. That very same day, he was appointed to the vaguely defined and unsalaried role of representative to the Quartet, the international body comprising the United States, European Union (EU), United Nations (UN), and Russia that was established in 2002 to oversee the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Blair had won three elections in a row in the United Kingdom, a record equaled in the modern era only by Margaret Thatcher. But by the time of his departure, his Labour Party was beset by internal divisions and rocked by scandals, and his popularity was waning. Blair’s talent for “media spin” had begun to grate on much of the British electorate, which found it increasingly hard to believe that their prime minister really was the man of principle he claimed to be.[1] Blair could not shake off a public perception both that he had used deception in promoting the case for war against Iraq in 2003 and that, in relation to those same events, his government had subordinated its foreign policy priorities to the goals of the U.S. administration of George W. Bush.

Nonetheless, the questions over his part in the Iraq war had done little to dent his reputation with the international community as a global statesman and political heavyweight, the very reasons he was offered the Quartet post. Public figures had avoided raising suspicions about his conduct, even while his public appearances in Britain invariably attracted a posse of protesters demanding that he be tried for war crimes.[2] In the years following the invasion of Iraq, the evidence against Blair slowly mounted, particularly with Britain’s official investigation of the Iraq war, the Chilcot inquiry, whose hearings ended in early 2011. Publication of the final report has been repeatedly delayed because British officials have blocked access to official records of the conversations between Bush and Blair in the run-up to the invasion. Still, Sir John Chilcot has indicated that he is likely to be heavily critical of Blair, particularly over the misuse of intelligence.

It was not until summer 2012, however, that the general air of deference toward Blair was punctured. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel peace laureate and opponent of apartheid, publicly refused to share a platform with Blair at a leadership summit in Johannesburg. In an op-ed justifying his decision, Tutu excoriated Blair as a war criminal who should be in the dock at the International Criminal Court in the Hague for invading Iraq. “[I]n a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.”[4] Tutu assigned Blair responsibility not only for past war crimes. He also argued that the U.S.- and U.K.-led invasion of Iraq had created the backdrop for further suffering in the Middle East, especially in clearing a path to the current civil war in Syria and in freeing Israel to issue endless menaces to strike Iran in a bid to stop its alleged nuclear weapons program. Bush and Blair, Tutu wrote, “have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand—with the specter of Syria and Iran before us.”

A Sheep in Wolfensohn’s Clothing

In many ways, Blair seemed a natural choice for the post of Quartet Representative. He already had a proven track record in peacemaking, having negotiated an agreement between another pair of long-feuding communities divided by sectarian and nationalist differences. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought a formal end to hostilities between the Protestant “Loyalists” and the Catholic “Republicans” in Northern Ireland, leading to a power-sharing government. Some observers intimated that this might provide a model for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Blair also had great standing with the White House, an invaluable asset when the United States was the only real mediator between the two parties. Finally, Blair had long emphasized the importance of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which he saw as a vital element in reducing frustration and extremism in the Middle East that, in his view, threatened the West. But from the outset, there were doubts about how much impact Blair would have. The experiences of his predecessor were a warning of the likely limitations of the job. James Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank, was appointed in April 2005 as Special Envoy to the Middle East by then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Alvaro de Soto, a former UN envoy to the Quartet, says Wolfensohn was lured with a proposed job description that would have given him a writ “essentially covering the entire peace process.” But his final terms of reference were much narrower and were quickly whittled down further still, according to de Soto.[6]

Wolfensohn lasted in the job only eleven months, resigning when it became clear that he had been almost entirely boxed in by the United States and Israel. “I was stupid for not reading the small print,” he told the Israeli daily Ha’Aretz in an interview a year later.[7] It had soon become apparent to him that his role would be limited to mitigating the worst effects of the occupation and trying to revive the Palestinian economy, chiefly through high-level fund-raising. More

To read on the Journal of Palestine Studies site

To read as a PDF