Next month, Tony Blair will step down from his role as peace envoy for the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic consort comprised of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. The quartet was established in 2002 as a result of escalating conflict in the region, and has been committed to seeking a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Blair’s departure from his position comes at a time when the prospects for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians are at an all-time low.
When he took on the role of peace envoy in 2007, Blair was tasked with developing the Palestinian economy and improving the quality of its governance. In spite of Blair’s decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Blair was initially welcomed by the Palestinians, who were optimistic that he could generate change, given that he is such a prominent world figure.
Playing it safe
But from the beginning, it was clear that little would be accomplished. Building an economy and improving governance is difficult to achieve while the Palestinians are still under occupation, and Blair was hesitant to point this out to the Israelis.
To make headway on the peace process, both the quartet and Blair would need to have been more proactive and willing to criticise Israeli transgressions. The government of Israel, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, offered some rhetoric in support of the idea of a Palestinian state. But the expansion of illegal West Bank settlements continues, and key ministers have blocked any changes.
This goes to show that part of a larger problem with the quartet – and Blair’s role more specifically – is complacency. Blair never spoke out against the Israelis. And as a result, Palestinians became increasingly critical of his close relationship with Israel. He seemed far too focused on ensuring that Israeli interests were never threatened.
Another issue was Blair’s strained relationship with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. According to the Jerusalem Post, Blair is stepping down due to increasing tensions with Palestinian authority figures.
Another source of tension within the quartet was Blair’s array of business affairs in the Middle East, which were perceived to create a conflict of interest. Clients included companies with links to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, and an Abu Dhabi wealth fund. Critics also claimed that his mounting consultancy work in the region stripped away time and availability from his duties; he was not present enough to make any sort of impact. For example, he rarely visited the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in spite of the turmoil, instability and poverty there.
Though some Palestinian sources claimed that Blair “did a lot of good”, clear evidence of this is hard to come by. His supporters claim that his work helped open up the border crossing for Palestinian businessmen needing to access Jordan. On the other hand, after almost eight years over 500 checkpoints and roadblocks remain in the West Bank, and peace seems more elusive than ever.
Nevertheless, the inability to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be blamed completely on Blair. The quartet has exhibited a sluggish style of diplomacy, unwilling to take a strong stand. There is also an absence of a workable and effective process to achieve peace – or even some form of cooperation – between both sides.
Blair indicated that his mandate was “limited” to improving the economic conditions for the Palestinians, in the hope that this would enhance the chances of achieving a two-state solution. The quartet has affirmed that Blair had an “unwavering commitment to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace and made lasting contributions to the effort to promote economic growth and improve daily life in the West Bank and Gaza”.
Though Blair will no longer work in an official capacity, sources have insisted that he is committed to fostering peace in the region and will continue to serve in a personal capacity. Blair believes that by drawing on all of the relationships he has built in the Middle East, he can continue to make progress in the peace process. Based on the immediate reactions from around the world, most remain sceptical of what positive influence he can have on the region.