Monday, 3 March 2014

Tony Blair, the superfluous envoy

The Daily Star
Friday, February 28, 2014
By Michael Glackin

It’s hard to keep the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, out of the headlines. Whether it is avoiding an attempt by a waiter to arrest him for war crimes while he dined in a London restaurant, or his praising of the Egyptian Army coup, with its repression of civilians and jailing of journalists, Blair appears destined to always be with us.Last week, his name even popped up during one of the most high-profile British criminal trials of recent times. The court at London’s Old Bailey heard that the former prime minister offered his services as an “adviser” to media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Murdoch’s newspaper group News International, at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011.

The one thing in which Blair doesn’t appear to be making any headlines is in his role as peace envoy for the Middle East Quartet. Yet, at around the same time as his name came up in the phone-hacking trial, Blair was in Jerusalem, on what his official spokesperson informed me was his 113th trip to the city as envoy. But Blair’s latest visit begs the question: What have Blair’s trips to Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Middle East, after almost seven years as envoy, actually achieved?

The long-standing political logjam between Israel and the Palestinians cannot entirely be laid at Blair’s door. Blair’s remit as envoy is, in the words of his spokesperson, “to promote economic growth and job creation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and support the institution-building agenda of the Palestinian Authority.”

Fair enough, but in the seven years since Blair was appointed, economic growth and unemployment in the Palestinian Territories have worsened. Last October, the World Bank noted that foreign budget support for the West Bank and Gaza had fallen by more than half in the last seven years. Meanwhile, GDP growth in the territories tumbled from 9 percent in 2008 to 5.9 percent in 2012 and plummeted to just 1.9 percent in the first half of 2013. In the West Bank, economic growth actually shrank for the first time in a decade, declining by 0.1 percent.

In the seven years since Blair became Quartet envoy, private investment in the Palestinian territories has averaged a mere 15 percent of GDP, way below standard rates in other small developing countries.

Political instability and infighting within and between Hamas and Fatah isn’t likely to attract investment in a hurry. However, the World Bank report made clear that Israeli restrictions on trade, imports, movement and access were the “dominant deterrent” to investment and cost the West Bank alone around $3.4 billion annually, almost 35 percent of GDP.

Despite Blair’s 113 trips to Jerusalem, and many meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has failed to significantly ease these restrictions. What progress he has boasted of, the lifting of a handful of the hundreds of checkpoints and unmanned barriers, is frankly small beer and has made no impact on improving the Palestinian Authority’s 25 percent unemployment rate.

Blair’s failure to boost economic growth because of the wider political wrangling has merely emphasized the futility and impotence of the role of envoy in effecting change.

But during the same seven years Blair has been Quartet envoy, he has managed to amass a personal fortune, now estimated to be in the region of $110 million, a large chunk of which has been paid to him by Middle East governments for his advice and contacts. This has led to accusations that his very successful consultancy business, Tony Blair Associates, is cashing in on contacts he has cultivated as envoy.

The role of envoy is unpaid – although expenses are picked up by taxpayers – but it affords Blair an obvious business platform in the region for his role as a “consultant” to governments and various investment houses. For instance, last week, in addition to being in Jerusalem, Blair also popped up in Kuwait, where he met with the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah. Blair’s office said the visit was in his capacity as Quartet envoy.

TBA has had a lucrative contract with the Kuwaiti government for many years and has also carried out work for Mubadala, an Abu Dhabi government-owned investment vehicle. Blair has also visited both countries in his role as envoy.

Blair’s spokesperson said: “All commercial work is completely separate from Mr. Blair’s role as Quartet Representative. ... Mr. Blair’s office adheres to the strictest of conflict of interest policies and is held to the gold standard in this respect.”

Blair’s spokesperson rightly pointed out that “serious progress on Palestinian economic development requires a political process. This has only really been possible since [U.S.] Secretary [of State] Kerry started his push for political negotiations last year.” It should be noted that these negotiations, aimed at removing some Israeli restrictions on movement and goods, will not include the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with its 1.6 million inhabitants, or 40 percent of the population of Palestinian areas.

But the real problem is that the role of envoy has actually enabled political progress to fall into abeyance. It has provided threadbare cover for the failure of the Quartet to bring Israel to the negotiating table.

Blair espouses so-called “peace-economics” – laying the economic foundations of a Palestinian state ahead of its creation. But this is at best meaningless rhetoric and at worst a charade. It has done nothing other than allow Israel space to sidestep engaging with the Palestinians. While the Quartet discusses meaningless economic initiatives, Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue to multiply, making any prospect of a future settlement far less likely.

Blair’s predecessor as envoy, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn – who mostly based himself in the region during his year in the post – quit because he felt neither Israel nor the U.S. was serious about negotiating with the Palestinians. Why, given the absence of any achievement, does Blair doggedly cling to his role? Who benefits?

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beiurt newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2014.

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