Open Letter To Tony Blair On The Middle East

By Tim Butcher, Middle East Correspondent

Dear Mr Blair,

The last two international peace envoys to the Middle East – Alvaro de Soto who represented the United Nations and James Wolfensohn who represented the UN plus others – shared one thing in common.

They both quit, driven crazy by the job.

In the spirit of finding a way for you to avoid the same fate, I write with what I hope are helpful suggestions about your new post-Premiership role as Middle East envoy.

First, you are going to have to change. As a prime minister who came to power through media spin and who was never shy to appear in front of camera, you are going to have to learn to embrace silence.

The issues are too complex and the egos of the regional leaders, Arab and Israeli, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, too delicate for you to feed half-digested gobbets of news each day to the world’s media.

You will have to learn that in the Middle East patience not profile is a blessing.

Second, you are going to have to tighten up on your use of language. At last year’s Guildhall after-dinner speech you said this: “Terrorism is dedicated to one end: to stop democracy flourishing in Arab and Moslem countries; to foster sectarian division; to drive out the possibility of reconciliation between people of different faiths.” It was the sort of solecism (One end cannot also have three ends) you can get away with when speaking to an audience that has just dined well, but in the Middle East it would get you roasted.

In November 2005 Condoleezza Rice, America’s foreign policy chief, took days to persuade Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to sign up to what was, basically, a simple agreement on border crossings.

Insiders who attended the negotiations revealed every word and punctuation mark were parsed to the ‘n’th degree for any possible implicit meaning.

It might also be helpful to recall the 2005 agreement remains stillborn and its clauses about opening up the border unfulfilled.

Third, you must rethink your relationship with President George W. Bush.

As the leader of Britain, your dealings with him were, naturally, driven by your perception of Britain’s strategic position.

That led to such encounters as the “Yo, Blair” meeting when you volunteered to go to the Middle East instead of Miss Rice because you were, by your own admission, more diplomatically expendable than the US Secretary of State.

You said: “Obviously if she goes out, she’s got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk.” As a peace envoy you will no longer be able to see yourself as simply a tool of American foreign policy. You will be representing not just America or Britain but the international community, including the UN and the European Union.

When it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue, America’s dogged support of Israel has, in the eyes of many outsiders, been one of the main obstacles to a negotiated peace settlement.

When Mr de Soto took early retirement this year he grumbled his role as a UN negotiator had been hampered by constant diplomatic “pummelling” from America.

And in their infamous open letter of April 2004, 52 former British ambassadors and senior diplomats said the Israel-Palestine issue was stalled largely because America endorsed policies that were “one-sided and illegal”.

No other nation has more influence – for good and bad – in the Middle East than America and you are going to have to carefully rethink your relationship with Washington.

If handled artfully, your close personal relationship with President Bush could be your most powerful tool as a peace envoy, encouraging him to alter his backing for those “one-sided and illegal” policies.

But until you do, leaders of Arab nations in particular will be sceptical that you are simply Mr Bush’s poodle being given a run in the Middle East.

Finally, you will have to be prepared to do the unexpected.

When Mr Wolfensohn feared Israeli settlers were going to vandalise their industrial greenhouses in Gaza just before Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 he did the most extraordinary thing.

He put £300,000 of his own money into a fund to buy the greenhouses so they could be transferred to Palestinian farmers.

It was an expensive and generous gesture although it did not ultimately pay off. The greenhouses were looted by a Palestinian mob in their euphoria at Israel’s withdrawal.

It is a good model for what you can expect as Middle East peacemaker. It will be risky and, most likely, doomed to failure.

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