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     Volume 6 Issue 47 | December 7, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

Spinning the Unspinnable

Farah Ghuznavi

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has never made any secret of his admiration for America and the Americans. Indeed, some observers have rather unkindly categorised his behaviour in following the lead set by George W. Bush, as being similar to that of a lapdog. Mr. Blair's latest attempt to emulate the transatlantic cousins he so admires has been his decision to hire Bill Clinton's agent to broker a multimillion dollar deal for his (at some point) forthcoming memoirs. The high-profile US lawyer Robert Barnett who acted as a broker for Clinton's bestselling memoirs has apparently concluded a deal with Mr. Blair to contact various publishers on his behalf. Clearly, Mr. Blair is pursuing yet another of his American Dreams…

It is expected that as and when Mr. Blair gets around to writing these memoirs, he will find a willing audience in the US. According to one leading publisher of such books, “The Americans love him…They see him as an articulate George W. Bush” clearly just the effect Mr. Blair was aiming for! Personally, my theory has always been that one of the reasons for Blair's decision to enter into his bizarre political partnership with Bush Junior was in fact the certainty that in comparison to that particular American President, he could only come out looking very good indeed (though by the end of his tenure even that would become questionable).

And on the subject of political memoirs, the recent rash of publications focused on the run-up to the Iraq War already reveal some interesting aspects of Mr. Blair's behaviour, as well as his relationship with Mr. Bush. For example, after Bush received a warning from the US Embassy in Britain, shortly before the crucial vote in the House of Commons over the decision to go to war, that tensions over Iraq could mean that the Blair government might fall, he became very worried on behalf of his friend. To the astonishment of his National Security Adviser, Condi Rice, Bush went as far as to suggest that Britain need not join the invasion.

According to the recent book, “Blair Unbound”, Bush told Blair, “What I want to say to you is that my last choice is to have your government go down… We don't want that to happen…” As a solution, Bush suggested that Blair (and Britain) might wish to drop out of the coalition of the willing. But a source close to Tony Blair explained that after having taken it so far, the British Prime Minister felt that it would be pathetic to back out. So Mr. Blair replied, “I said I'm with you. I mean it.” According to Ms. Rice, the conversation was “very emotional”. How sweet clearly, a love thing… (UK Independent)

All this makes the choice of Tony Blair to be made Middle East envoy working on behalf of Russia, the EU, the UN and (surprise, surprise) the US, all the more peculiar. While his official task in his new career as an international diplomat is to promote Palestinian economic development and advise on building the institutions of a future Palestinian state, his qualifications to do so remain highly questionable. For one thing, at the end of his tenure as British Prime Minister, the gap between rich and poor in the UK is wider than it has been for fifty years and the trust between politicians and the public has hit new lows, resulting from a combination of the widely-despised “spin” culture, continuing anger over the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, persistent questions regarding loans in exchange for peerages etc, etc. Not to mention the growing extravagance and venality of some of those in public office, whose lifestyles seem more appropriate to celebrities than to elected politicians!

But even worse, of course is Mr. Blair's record of “diplomacy” in the Middle East, the very region whose most intractable problem he is now tasked with helping to solve. In the words of Alan Simpson, a member of the Labour Campaign Group, “I can't see how Blair, who took us to war against Iraq can do anything to bring peace to Palestine”. Nor are Mr. Blair's biases towards Israel completely invisible. For one thing, he shocked world opinion by failing to call for a halt to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last year, despite the catastrophic infrastructural damage and civilian casualties that it caused. Israeli officials on the other hand have made no secret of their pleasure at Mr. Blair's appointment - Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister confirming in a phone call to him that Israel would “co-operate with him to the fullest”. So clearly, we have nothing to worry about lasting peace is in the bag!

Blair's predecessor as the Middle East envoy, James Wolfensohn, was a former head of the World Bank. Because Wolfensohn genuinely wanted to promote measures aimed at making Palestine a viable state, he had sought a real commitment from Jerusalem to the two-state solution. But after becoming increasingly frustrated with his lack of progress in easing border closures at crossing points from the Palestinian territories to Israel, which were effectively strangling economic life in the territories, Wolfensohn finally resigned in disgust.

It is expected that Blair who is, in the words of one political commentator, “a fully paid-up member of the 'War of Civilisations Society' and a particularly 'close friend' of Israel (as Jerusalem called him when he announced his retirement)” will not suffer from the same concerns. His interests are likely to be the same as his allies in America and the new French President i.e. to find any kind of solution, no matter how unjust, that serves the purpose of Israel and its allies in the West. From that perspective, he is undoubtedly a perfect choice for the job!

But there may be some evidence to indicate that even Mr. Blair's highly elastic conscience could end up finding this harder than he originally envisaged. For example, at a recent briefing provided by the Israeli military, Mr. Blair attempted to find out why goods could not pass directly across the border from a spot in the Palestinian territories, rather than being taken through a more convoluted route, involving more time and money. Alas, his host explained, that would be difficult, requiring a whole new expensive security apparatus that did not currently exist...

A visit to Hebron also brought home some important realisations for Mr. Blair, who appeared to be shocked by the extent to which the Old City has been boarded up and stripped of Palestinian life, because of the presence of some 800 Jewish settlers and their military protectors. Similarly, diplomats say that he was genuinely taken aback by his trip to the West Bank sector in the Jordan Valley, where Palestinians are allowed to dig wells only one-third as deep as Israelis, and rich Jewish agricultural settlements are benefiting from investing their considerable resources at the expense of closed-in Palestinian farmers (UK Independent).

Under the circumstances, Mr. Blair's publicly-expressed optimism borders on the heroic, although he accepts in private that settlement expansion will soon make a Palestinian state unfeasible, thereby rendering the two-state solution completely unworkable. All of this increases the urgency to find a durable solution, but it remains to be seen whether his diplomatic efforts or the recent peace initiative organised at Annapolis will actually yield any concrete results at all. There are widespread doubts on both fronts.

Asked what he has learnt since taking the job, Tony Blair replied, “I have learnt the depth of Israel's concern for security, and I have learnt the depth of the Palestinians' distress caused by the occupation.” That is as it should be, of course, and while one may rejoice that Mr. Blair has finally reached this level of enlightenment, the fact remains that those realisations were reached a long time ago by many of us who have not been in the fortunate position to go on paid fact-finding missions in the Middle East…!


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