During his trip to the Middle East, British Prime Minister Tony Blair provided an encouraging shove for a Hamas-Fatah unity coalition by calling for Western economic sanctions against the Palestinians to be lifted if the new government recognizes Israel and honors past agreements with Jerusalem.
So is Blair, who announced last week that he would leave his position within a year, angling to spend the time he has left in Downing Street pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian deal just like Bill Clinton did in the waning days of his presidency?
“How to relate to the Palestinian unity government will be a test of whether Prime Minister Blair can move President Bush on these issues during his remaining time in office,” said Daniel Levy, a fellow at the New America Foundation.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz during his trip to the region, Blair stressed the need to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to recognize the global threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. But he also voiced his oft-repeated assertion that attempting to solve the Palestinian issue was a key step to diffusing the volatile tensions between the West and the Muslim world.
“I know from the Israeli point of view how frustrating it is to be told, you know, this is an issue that in the interest of the world has got to be solved… and you worry in Israel that maybe our interests get sacrificed in the course of finding a solution,” Blair said. “I hope that I’ve done enough to prove that I will never sacrifice the security of Israel in that way. But I do genuinely believe that our job has got to be to build that alliance of moderation and empower the moderate Muslims and Arab voices.”
So far, despite his standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Washington on Iraq, Blair appears to have failed to convince the Bush administration to become more involved in seeking a solution. This failure, observers say, raises serious doubts about his ability to succeed now, especially because his unpopularity is partly due to the perception at home and abroad that he is Bush’s “poodle.”
“Blair is as weak as ever and both the Palestinian issue and the Lebanese situation are big question marks, so all this militates against his ability to achieve anything,” said Charles Kupchan, an expert on European politics with the Council on Foreign Relations.
In addition to the perception that Blair obtained very little in return for his rigorous support of the American war efforts in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the lack of progress on the Palestinian issue and the war in Lebanon have bolstered his critics in the left wing of the Labor Party. Blair’s reluctance to call for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon has thus been criticized as yet more proof of his blind alignment with the Bush administration and its allies in Jerusalem. His Labor foes have pointed to the demonstrations and the snubs from several politicians during his trip to Lebanon as a prime example of his, and Britain’s, loss of credibility in the region.
Observers agree that Blair’s likely successor, Finance Minister Gordon Brown, will keep more distance from Washington and a lower profile on the Middle East. “While Blair is a Christian neo-conservative through and through on foreign affairs, Brown has a far more traditional approach to international affairs,” said Daniel Plesch, a research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.
While Brown’s foreign policy views are not well known, he has been outspoken in his advocacy for a substantial increase in aid to Africa.