Talking of Peace in the Middle East

Former British prime minister Tony Blair appeared on ABC’s This Week to talk about bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together.

While both the Israeli prime minister and the President of the Palestinian Authority are in Washington DC this week to lay down a framework agreement for a peace accord, former British prime minister Tony Blair, currently the West’s permanent envoy to the region, appeared on ABC’s This Week to talk about the challenges ahead.

Contrary to the difficult peace process in Northern Ireland, which Blair was an integral part of in the late 1990s, in the Middle East, both sides agree that there can be only one outcome: the two-state solution. This makes it, at least somewhat, “easier,” said Blair, to work out an agreement. What is needed from the Palestinian Authority is that it starts building the necessary institutions for statehood, particularly in the realm of security, so that Israel can “respond to that by giving the Palestinians greater run and greater freedom over their territory.”

The foremost demand from the Palestinian side — that Israel halt its construction of settlements in the West Bank — didn’t seem to bother Blair particularly. As he explained, when a final agreement on the borders of the Palestinian state is reached, settlement activity should no longer present a legal problem. Israel has, in the past, shown a willingness to dismantle settlements and even, last year, threatened to use force against Jewish colonists who refused to abide by a moratorium on settlement activity that is due to expire this month.

Asked whether the Palestinians can guarantee security within their own borders — Israel’s nonnegotiable priority for any peace accord — Blair attested that “they’ve gone a long way.” Indeed, he said, “the Israelis accept that. And as a result of that, incidentally, we now have many of the main checkpoints open [and] the Palestinian economy is very strong.” With imports and exports moving again, economic peace for Palestine may soon become a reality. With Israel understandably concerned over Hamas’ position in Gaza, at least for the West Bank, a closer integration of the Israeli and Palestinian economies should mean a step forward.

The Gaza Strip, stressed Blair, must not be separated from Palestine proper and have Hamas in permanent control. The former prime minister gave the terrorist group two choices: either continue down the path of violence and eventually lose support from the Palestinian people or “become part of this process.” Other Middle Eastern governments have tried to negotiate with Hamas, he added, to no avail.

A recent bombing in Gaza which occurred on the eve of the talks currently taking place in Washington, powerfully demonstrated Hamas’ persistent unwillingness to sit down and compromise. “The only way ultimately of defeating Hamas,” therefore, “is with a better political argument and the genuine prospect of a Palestinian state.”