WASHINGTON--Mideast peace envoy Tony Blair, citing "slender and real grounds for hope," says an opportunity exists to advance negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians but urged swift and concerted action by international and local actors to restore credibility to the flagging peace talks.
Blair, the former British prime minister, has served for the past eighteen months as envoy for the Mideast "Quartet," consisting of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia. He told a December 3 meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations he has been encouraged by some security and economic improvements in the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but he said broader efforts to improve living conditions must accompany the peace process if it is to make meaningful progress. "The political process and changing the reality [on the ground] have to march in lockstep," Blair said.
Improving conditions on the ground, he said, could help shore up confidence on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which seeks to reach a comprehensive two-state solution. At the moment, Blair said, "each people has lost faith in the other's good faith. Israelis don't believe they've got a partner for peace. Palestinians don't believe Israel is sincere in offering statehood."
Blair outlined four priorities:
- Pursuing a serious negotiating process marked by what he called "creativity" and "goodwill" and pursued with "vigor and determination."
- Advancing a comprehensive plan for Palestinian security building on current efforts to train Palestinian forces in Jordan and other moves to set up a competent system of law and order. It is "not just an idle dream," Blair said, pointing to Palestinian security efforts he has witnessed in Jenin, Nablus, and Hebron in the West Bank.
- Bringing economic and social change. Blair said international help is essential and should take note of positive trends in the West Bank like the revival of Bethlehem as a tourist destination, rising housing development, and falling unemployment. "There is plenty to despair of but there are slender and real grounds for hope," he said.
- Providing a new strategy to resolve the Palestinian impasse over Gaza, which has been controlled by the militant Palestinian group Hamas since June 2007. Blair said Palestinian elections expected by early 2010 offer one way toward a solution if moderate politicians from both factions are elected to power. "However much we are tempted to set Gaza to one side because of the chaos it causes to Palestinian cohesion it cannot be. But neither is its predicament inevitable," Blair said. "It can and it must be reversed."
CFR President Richard N. Haass, who worked closely with Blair during his time as U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland's peace process, agreed that a cohesive Palestinian "partner" in any talks would be vital.
"Israelis need to see Palestinian institutions and they need to see Palestinian capacities up and working if they are going to take risks and make the sorts of concessions that are going to be necessary if peace is going to happen," he said. "It is important that these institutions are functioning well and that these capacities are adequate to the challenges they will surely face if a Palestinian state, if and when it comes to exist, is not to become a failed state."
"There is plenty to despair of but there are slender and real grounds for hope." --Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair also praised some mebers of the foreign policy team that has been appointed by U.S. President-elect Barack Obama as being well suited to helping guide a Mideast solution.
"I think there is a consensus now amongst the international community, not just America but everwhere, as to how to deal with this, more or less around the points that I am making," he said. "The question is now--what people will watch for--is it taken forward with the requisite urgency and determination and I have every confidence that it will be."
Blair's comments echoed some of the findings of a new report by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. The report, coauthored by Haass and Brookings scholar Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, cited an "urgent need for a diplomatic effort to achieve a final peace agreement based on a two-state solution while it is still feasible." But the report added: "deep divisions within the Palestinian leadership (not to mention divisions within Israel's body politic), and the Palestinian Authority's questionable ability to control territory from which Israel would withdraw, sharply reduce prospects for a sustainable peace agreement no matter what the outside effort." The report also emphasized the need to expand talks to include an Israeli-Syrian track, as well as the importance of opening a dialogue with Iran in an final effort to convince that country not to develop nuclear weapons.
For comprehensive multimedia background to the conflict, see CFR's Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.