I attended Tony Blair’s testimony to the International Development Select Committee this morning. He had come to give a disposition on Gaza as the Quartets representative. I entered the room surrounded by assorted representatives of NGOs such as Oxfam and some self appointed human rights monitors. Not the sort of company I revel in. Eavesdropping on their pre event discussion I became aware that the differences between us were as intractable as the conflict itself.
To Oxfam it appears the problem is Israel’s. They are intransigent. If only they opened the border and recognised Hamas and negotiated with them this would all end. Absent from their discussion was any indication that Hamas attacks and the movements refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist might have something to do with it. I entered the room fearing that Tony Blair may offer this baying mob some meat. He might condemn Israel’s Liberal Democracy for its actions concerning Gaza. Hoping that by playing to the press gallery and assorted great and good he would win support for his role. I was pleasantly surprised.
Throughout, his testimony Tony Blair showed that he was fully aware of the many pressures Israel’s leaders are under and the basic features which need to be present if a lasting peace deal is ever to be concluded. He was strong and resolute in what he believed and gave a vivid account of the situation and thoughtful vision of how both sides could work their way out of the current malaise.
On Israeli security he explained the need to ensure that any peace deal involve Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to security. He outlined the need to build up the Palestinians security capability to ensure that attacks against Israel could be prevented. Some members of the committee needed to be informed that no Israeli administration would sign a deal unless they could be sure that the Palestinian leadership they signed it with were willing and capable of ensuring peace between the two states. Blair stated that Israeli leaders should withdraw from the West Bank but we needed to ensure that if that occurred the militias would not merely move in as with Gaza.
Recognising the need to provide Palestinians with employment Blair revealed how the international aid promised could only be successful if there were peace. Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist and the rockets attacks were noted as impediments to progress. Given their military grip on Gaza he noted that if Hamas wanted to stop the majority of attacks she could do so. Instead Mr Blair pointed out Hamas were acting hypocritically. They were using the humanitarian situation in Gaza to put pressure on Israel but then attacks were conducted on fuel shipments at the checkpoints. In the process 2 innocent Israeli civilians were murdered. These attacks meant Israel could not open the checkpoints and thereby allow in more humanitarian aid. His solution was for Hamas to call a ceasefire. Only then could progress be made.
Blair was asked if he was the man to perform the role of mediator in this conflict. Blair was accused of a pro Israel bias because of his unwillingness to attack Israel for her actions in Lebanon. There was also the little matter of his leading role in the Iraq war. How could the Arabs trust him? Here Blair showed the skill of a consummate political professional. A deal between Israel and Palestine had to involve Israel. In order to seal this deal Palestine needed someone trusted by Israel to conclude it. Thereby being seen as close to America and Israel was no sin to the Palestinian people because they needed just such a person to conclude for them the deal that would end the occupation. This is probably why no Palestinian leader had ever asked him this kind of question. The answer was pitched perfectly. Its delivery impeccable.
The membership of the committee is by no means favourable to Israel. Committee members Mr Stephen Crabb and Mr Marsha Singh asked intelligent insightful questions offering hope that objective analysis is not entirely absent from the proceedings. However, the opinion of the overwhelming majority of members appears to be that Hamas should be engaged in negotiations regardless of whether they cease attacks and recognise Israel’s right to exist. The Committee opposes the position of the Quartet that makes both these conditions necessary before Hamas can enter talks.
Some Committee members insisted on engaging in a fruitless debate as to whether promoting any economic development in the West Bank merely legitimised the occupation. However, Blair brought the debate back on track by rightly pointing out that most Palestinians were more concerned in getting a job than this kind of legalistic approach. Only by providing the Palestinians –many of which are under 25 – with work could a lasting peace be built. Announcing a plan to sponsor Palestinian mortgages Blair in a nice interplay with Marsha Singh informed him it was no longer his role to propose such things for Britain. At this point a broad grin emerged and you could sense Blair was enjoying himself.
As Anthony Blair stated a series of truisms unlikely to impress the NGOs and their spokesmen on the committee I developed a healthy respect for him. On virtually everything else we are in complete disagreement but on this issue Blair seems to get it. He seems comfortable in his role and optimistic as to the chances of achieving a lasting peace. I watched the testimony in a room dubbed the spill over room (the Boothroyd room). This was a powerful response to any delusions of grandeur politicos such as I may have i.e. being a non pass holder I could only view Blair’s performance on a tv screen. As I left I saw Oxfam guy shake his head. I think Blair did well today and we should all wish him well - in this role - in the future. Hopefully he will provide Oxfam with much to tut tut about in future.