Friday, 6 November 2009

Tony Blair's record as 'Quartet' envoy displays distinct lack of substance

The Daily Star
Friday November 6 2009
By Michael Glackin

During a trip to Nablus earlier this year, Tony Blair insisted that improving conditions for Palestinians in the Israeli occupied West Bank was proof that a Palestinian state can be “built from the bottom up while it’s being negotiated from the top down.” Blair was referring to the removal of three Israeli checkpoints around the city.

It was a typical snappy, political sound-bite of the kind Blair, special envoy for the Middle East “Quartet” – the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations – excels in. Remember the one about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “which could be activated within 45 minutes?”

Unfortunately, like the sound-bite he used to win support for the invasion of Iraq, Blair’s comments in Nablus were untrue.

Firstly there are currently no meaningful “top down” negotiations between the governments of the Palestinian Authority and Israel, nor indeed anyone else it seems. Secondly, the “bottom up” improvements that Blair was extolling, the easing of restrictions at Israeli checkpoints, only exist in a handful of places and are seen by many Palestinians as a sop for the lack of meaningful political progress to improve their plight.

These small improvements in the everyday lives of people shouldn’t be overlooked of course, but in reality they are not much to show for more than two years in his role as Quartet envoy and hardly evidence that Blair is slowly laying the economic foundations of a viable Palestinian state. This year Israel has removed 11 checkpoints, but according to the UN there are still more than 600 checkpoints and unmanned barriers choking the free movement of goods and people throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

So what exactly has Blair achieved during his two years as Quartet envoy?

Well for one thing, he has succeeded in rapidly turning himself into a multi-millionaire. It is estimated Blair has made around $24 million since he stepped down as prime minister in 2007. He is of course unpaid in his role as part-time Quartet envoy – although his expenses are picked up by taxpayers – but he appears to have found his Middle East role a useful way to generate cash for himself.

Last weekend it was reported that Blair had held talks with UK supermarket giant Tesco about helping the superstore establish itself in the Middle East for a fee of $1.6 million. The talks, which ended without agreement, have increased accusations that Blair is utilizing his unpaid role in the Middle East to feather his own nest by promoting his private political and economic consultancy, Tony Blair Associates (TBA).

TBA, which Blair runs with his former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell, was established shortly after he was forced out of government by current UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Earlier this year, Blair was in Saudi Arabia in his peace-envoy role to hold talks with King Abdullah on the situation in the Gaza Strip. He was accompanied by Powell, although Powell has no role in the peace process. After the meeting the pair also met Prince Al-Waleed, King Abdullah’s nephew, who has no political role but is widely recognized as the wealthiest and smartest businessman in the Middle East. TBA’s clients are understood to include members of the royal families of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, countries Blair has visited in his role as Quartet envoy.

Last month a friend of Blair’s told the Sunday Times newspaper that TBA “had been set up to make money from foreign governments and companies. There’s a focus on the Middle East, because that is where the money is.”

On top of all that, Blair also represents US investment bank JP Morgan in the region in return for an estimated annual fee of $3 million. Beyond the Middle East there’s also the $800,000 Blair earns for representing Zurich Financial Services and a $7 million advance on his memoirs he received from publisher Random House in 2007. He is also reputed to earn up to $300,000 for each talk he gives on the global lecture circuit.

But what has been good for Blair’s finances has not been so good for Palestinians who remain burdened by Israeli restrictions, with movement into and through the West Bank strangled by checkpoints.

This week the Israel relaxed its blockade on Gaza to allow in tea and coffee. Both had been on a long list of items prohibited by the Israelis for security reasons along with cooking oil, dairy products, flour and frozen meat.

Another successful example of Blair’s “bottom up” theory? Hardly.

The blockade, imposed following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 continues and still includes the closure of Karni, one of the largest and best-equipped commercial crossings, continuing restrictions on the import of industrial, agricultural and construction materials, the suspension of almost all exports and a general ban on the movement of Palestinians through Erez, the only passenger crossing to the West Bank.

The bizarre ban on pens and pencils also appears to remain in place. The World Bank warned this year that the impact of the blockade on Gaza has been so severe, that it is unlikely many of the area’s fledgling businesses will be able to recover if and when the blockade is eventually lifted.

Other areas where Blair has become directly involved, such as his commendable attempts to persuade Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to allot the promised bandwidth for a second Palestinian mobile-phone company, operated by Wataniya Palestine, and which Blair said was “an important indicator of whether Palestinians are going to be allowed to run an economy properly” have also failed. Wataniya finally launched this week but not on the promised bandwidth it needs for the business to be viable.

In fairness to Blair the political process, under the aegis of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has also failed to deliver and US President Barack Obama’s demand for a one-year freeze on settlement construction has been ignored. But given Blair’s narrow economic remit he has achieved next to nothing. Based on results, Blair’s role has been revealed as a non-job, save for providing him with a political calling card to present when selling his other wares.

Blair’s burning ambition to become the first president of the European Union appears to have been scuppered by European leaders over his support for former US President George W Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein. But they didn’t have to go that far back to find his flaws.

Blair is an extremely accomplished communicator, a skill not to be overlooked in modern politics, but one that should compliment political acumen and leadership, not serve as a substitute for it.
There must be substance behind the sound-bite, and frankly, Blair’s record as Quartet envoy displays a distinct lack of that particular commodity.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

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