Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The unbearable lightness of being Blair

The Daily Star
Friday, June 5, 2015
By Michael Glackin

It perhaps says something about the importance Tony Blair attached to his role as envoy for the Middle East Quartet that when I contacted his office this week to ask what he considered his main achievement during his eight years in office, no one bothered to respond.

It’s a pity because, while the short answer is not much, the failure is attributable less to Blair than to the Quartet itself.

There is a danger in playing Devil’s advocate. Blair shares a great deal of responsibility for the murderous mayhem that has enveloped the Middle East in the last decade. But though I speak as a long-standing critic, particularly of his role as envoy, some of the criticism since he announced that he was stepping down from the position has been utterly ridiculous.

Blair was the toothless representative of a collection of global powers – the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States – that failed to invest any of their considerable political capital in resolving Israel’s five-decade-old occupation of Palestinian lands. It is the wider political process that did not deliver, and, without that, Blair’s efforts, for all his grubby tardiness in remaining in a fruitless role for eight years, were always going to lead nowhere.

The Quartet members lost interest in trying to re-energize a moribund peace process that was broken long before the misery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dwarfed by events in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. As far back as 2008, regional NGOs warned about the Quartet’s lack of progress and called on its members to “signal strong opposition to continued settlement expansion” by Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Nothing happened.

More recently, in 2012, a report by the Brookings Institution said the Quartet had “little to show for its decadelong involvement in the peace process.” In the end Blair became a lightning rod for this inertia. His extremely narrow remit – to promote economic development and help improve governance in the occupied Palestinian territories – meant he was never in a position to influence political events. He was so peripheral to the decision-making process that he wasn’t even invited to the last ministerial-level meeting of the Quartet last February.

And yet, Blair was hardly on a fool’s errand. Being envoy put the diplomat cum multimillionaire businessman center stage in Middle East diplomacy, while he conducted lucrative private deals with regional governments with which he dealt on Quartet missions. Blair’s global consultancy, which offers investment and strategic advice to governments and corporations, includes among its clients PetroSaudi, an oil company with links to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the Kuwait government, and the Abu Dhabi wealth fund Mubadala. Since being appointed envoy, Blair is estimated to have amassed between $75 million and $150 million, although he insists the figure is much lower.

This inevitably led to accusations of conflicts of interest. It has also tarnished Blair’s few small successes as envoy. He succeeded in getting the Israeli government to release radio frequencies which enabled cell phone company Wataniya Mobile to operate in the West Bank, allowing competition with larger rival Jawwal. He also lobbied Israel to allow the British energy firm BG Group and Palestinian officials to establish Gaza Marine, a long stalled $1 billion offshore drilling project.

But both Wataniya Mobile and BG Group were clients of U.S. investment giant JP Morgan at the time – the bank that also pays Blair around $3 million a year to act as its consultant. Oddly enough, I suspect this creative multitasking doesn’t overly concern many in the region. However, it is the fig-leaf nature of Blair’s former office, that it was established to provide a shroud to cover the absence of progress to resolve Israel’s long occupation of Palestinian territories, that rankles with many, and his willingness to play along with it for so long.

Blair’s other minor successes included his part in opening up the Allenby crossing, which enabled Palestinian businessmen easier access to Jordan. But that success, and a handful of others like it, must be set against the more than 500 other Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks that remain in place.

The economies of the West Bank and Gaza are in a dire state, and private investment continues to be well below standard levels in other small developing countries. A World Bank report last month reiterated that the primary factor strangling growth in Gaza and the West Bank is Israeli restrictions.

While one can argue that Ramallah is reasonably prosperous, thanks to foreign aid, Israel retains control over 60 percent of the West Bank. That means prospects for any real investment and the expansion of the private sector are extremely limited.

Even before last summer’s Gaza war, one in six Palestinians in the West Bank was jobless and one out of two in Gaza.

But the central problem, and the one Blair faced from the outset, is that there isn’t anything that resembles a workable and effective political framework to improve the plight of the Palestinians. His remit, to start building a Palestinian state “from the bottom up while it is being negotiated from the top down,” was laughable. There were no meaningful “top down” negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel at any point during his time as envoy.

King Abdullah II of Jordan succinctly summed up the attitude of the Israeli government in 2011 with his pithy remark: “Israel is not really interested in a two-state solution, and what is the other option?” Add in the infighting within the Palestinian leadership, the death knell for any hope of reform after the sacking of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2013, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansion of illegal settlements, and you have to wonder why anyone thought Blair, even without the baggage of his record in the region, could make a difference.

Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 05, 2015, on page 7.

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