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Op-Ed

Tony Blair's Palestine

Chris Patten, Arab News, Jidda, Saudi Arabia, April 3, 2008

The Americans and Europeans committed a major error in conspiring to destroy the Fatah-Hamas national unity government, which was created largely thanks to the diplomacy of Saudi Arabia and other Arab League countries.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has many positive attributes, including great charm. He will need all his skills to address the bewildering range of global tasks that he has taken on since being shoehorned out of office by his dour successor, Gordon Brown.

His initial daytime job, after running Britain, was to bring peace to the Middle East by helping establish the governing institutions of a Palestinian state.

Since then, Blair has become an adviser to banks (which need all the advice they can get these days), is touring the world to promote a sensible policy on global warming and climate change, has created a foundation to help bridge the divide between different faiths, and will lecture on religion at Yale. All that is left is to restore the fortunes of England's national football and cricket teams. Perhaps he could fit that in on weekends.

But Blair has just made a useful comment on Palestine and Israel, which deserves to be taken seriously. Throughout the long years of this bloody tragedy, we have tried to inch our way to a settlement through confidence-building measures or, in the case of the long dead "road map," through pushing both parties to take parallel steps toward an agreement. Some observers, not least hardheaded Israeli peace campaigners, have suggested a different approach.

You will never succeed, they say, if you try to bob and weave your way slowly toward an end game. Instead, you should jump straight into a final deal. And, since you won't get the two sides to agree to it, you'll have to impose it from the outside.

But that ambitious outcome is easier described than achieved. While Israeli public opinion has usually appeared to run well ahead of its political leaders in the approach to peace, it is difficult to see how one could act over their heads. They need to be pushed and shoved into a successful negotiation. What would it mean to go straight to Palestinian statehood?

Presumably, Blair is not proposing to the Palestinians the creation of a state before an agreement is reached on final borders. There cannot be a Palestinian state without dealing with West Bank settlements. If you don't believe me, just visit the West Bank and see, for example, how the proposed suburban Israeli development of East Jerusalem stabs through the heart of Palestinian territory toward the Dead Sea. How can you have a viable state carved up by fences, military roads, and barbed wire?

Any Palestinian state should be within the 1967 borders (as adjusted through negotiation). Peace activists on both sides solved that in the Geneva initiative. Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak came close to doing so at Camp David almost eight years ago.

Moreover, a Palestinian state would not only comprise the West Bank and Gaza, but presumably would also have to accommodate the principal political parties in each area. Attempts to destroy Hamas—whether politically or physically—have not worked and cannot work. The Americans and Europeans committed a major error in conspiring to destroy the Fatah-Hamas national unity government, which was created largely thanks to the diplomacy of Saudi Arabia and other Arab League countries.

I hope that Blair is saying that to his American friends. His greatest achievement was the peace deal in Northern Ireland. That historic triumph depended on bringing in Sinn Fein politicians—leaders of the Irish Republican movement who in many cases could not be distinguished from the I.R.A., which bombed, shot, and maimed civilians in pursuit of its political goals.

Why should what worked in Northern Ireland—indeed, what was pressed on Britain by the United States—be unthinkable in the Middle East? Are we in the West guilty of double standards yet again?

I abhor any and every terrorist act, by Hamas or anyone else. I have had friends killed by terrorists. But since when were sentiment and moral denunciation sufficient ingredients of a policy? And when did a disproportionate military response to terrorism ever work?

The third challenge in establishing a Palestinian state is to create the institutions of statehood: hospitals, ports, airports, roads, courts, police stations, tax offices, and government archives. When I was a European commissioner, we provided funds from European taxpayers to pay for these things. Then we saw them systematically trashed by Israel's response to the second Intifada.

How did destroying driving licenses in Palestine preserve Israeli security? How was it preserved by digging up runways, uprooting olive trees, and fouling wells?

A Palestinian state will need to be built from the bottom up. And what is built should not be destroyed.

I want to see—and I'm sure Blair does, too—a peaceful Palestinian state next door to a secure Israel in a region united in prosperity and stability.

Maybe Blair has hit on how this can be achieved. But he should dwell upon the implications of such an approach between board meetings, lectures, and photo calls.

Chris Patten is a former governor of Hong Kong and European commissioner for external affairs. He is currently chancellor of Oxford University and co-chair of the International Crisis Group. This article from Arab News is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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