Blair Has a Long Shot at Achieving Middle East Progress in Atlantic Outlook Vol 1. No 3
September 3, 2007
Tony Blair’s foray into peacemaking as the envoy of the Middle East Quartet (United States, Russian Federation, European Union, and United Nations) seems baffling at first. With violence continuing between Israelis and Palestinians and a divided Palestinian government, some might consider the former British prime minister to be on a fool’s errand. Yet, if Blair can resist the temptation of trying to resolve Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the domain of U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, he may be able to achieve tangible results. His greatest opportunity lies not in bridging the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Palestinian rivals.
Blair’s official mandate, to build Palestinian governing institutions and promote economic development, is narrow but still formidable. The emergency Palestinian government appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza is weak and has little legitimacy. The Quartet policy of isolating Hamas has caused more hardship for ordinary Palestinians and fanned the flames of Fatah- Hamas rivalry, but it is not likely to change soon.
Against this bleak background, Palestinian development and Israeli-Palestinian political progress depend on a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah through a return to unified government. Without a united Palestinian government, Hamas can render Israeli- Palestinian negotiations meaningless by violently thwarting any political overtures made by Abbas. Israelis know this, which is why few believe that current discussions between Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas will lead anywhere. If Blair seeks to build institutions for all Palestinians and to promote a new unity government, he just might be able to make a positive contribution where past Middle East envoys have failed. If he does the bidding of the Bush administration and promotes a development plan that excludes Gaza and rewards those close to the inner circle of Abbas, he will only contribute to the growing woes of Palestinians. The odds are against his achieving even such a modest goal. Despite a recent call by a UK parliamentary panel for an end to the boycott of Hamas, and previous contacts between the organization and British diplomats, Blair is not authorized to talk with Hamas. He does not, however, have to. More importantly, he must persuade Palestinians that they can create a viable political system only through power sharing. He will have some support from Saudi and even European quarters. His biggest challenge will be to convince the Bush administration that a Palestinian unity government is a necessary evil for future progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
Blair’s task will ultimately be meaningless without a new agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Only then can Palestinian politics move forward without violence and a valid partner emerge for future negotiations. If Blair focuses on this key goal, his narrow mandate may turn out to be his saving grace.