Enemies Cameron and Blair meet to talk peace (in the Middle East)
Palestinian-Israeli peace, which, with just over one month to go before the latest peace deal deadline expires, is not going well.
Overnight, Israeli warplanes pummelled 29 targets in Gaza in retaliation for a barrage of 60 rockets fired into Israel since Wednesday.
Although no one was killed by these missiles, they randomly targeted civilian areas. This was “unreservedly” condemned by both Mr Cameron and Mr Blair. Mr Blair said: “The strikes from Gaza just underline and illustrate the depth of the problem.”
Gaza, which has been under an Israeli siege for seven years, is ruled by Hamas, an Islamist group proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the US and Europe. Although the rocket strikes were claimed by other militant groups, Hamas does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and refuses to end violence. This means Mr Blair does not talk to them, which clearly poses a problem for any peacemaker.
As Middle East Envoy for the Quartet – comprised of the UN, US, EU and Russia – the ex-PM-turned-mediator briefed the current PM on the fragile state of play, ahead of Mr Cameron’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
Here is what Mr Blair said to Mr Cameron: “You’re going to see President Abbas soon, only a few minutes away, and unfortunately he didn’t condemn the rocketing of our civilians. He condemned the fact that Israel interdicted and hit the three terrorists that who fired the mortars on us. That he did condemn. And that’s wrong.”
It should come as no surprise to learn that Palestinians, particularly those condemned to live in Gaza, brand Mr Blair pro-Israeli, tainted and, after seven years as peace envoy, pretty much meaningless and irrelevant.
Among those we talked to in Gaza City last month, few actually recognised a photograph of the man tasked with uplifting their dire economic conditions. Among those who did, we registered nothing but contempt. (see video above)
In the Palestinian press, Mr Blair has been dismissed as biased. When he spoke in January at the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he painted Mr Sharon as “a giant of this land.” One Palestinian newspaper called Mr Blair “one of Sharon’s praise-singers” and remarked on how he had eulogised the former Israeli leader without regard for his own credibility as envoy for the Quartet.
This is Mr Cameron’s first visit to Israel and the West Bank as Prime Minister. It’s Mr Blair’s 114th visit to Israel since he was appointed the Quartet’s unpaid, but generously expensed, envoy in 2007. Recently, he was tasked by US Secretary of State John Kerry (broker of the latest peace plan) with devising an economic development plan for the Palestinian Territories. It’s critical to Mr Kerry’s plan.
Although accused by Palestinians of delivering next-to-nothing in terms of easing the crippling Israeli siege, Mr Blair is clearly aware of how bad things are in Gaza. In recent months he has talked of the “grave humanitarian situation” there and expressed his “deepening concern”. But owing to perceived security threats, he has only been to the territory twice in seven years, most recently, four years ago.
Today he said: “Gaza continues to be under lockdown, with extremist groups operating and the people in a desperate situation. One thing we are going to need, medium and long term, is a completely new strategy towards Gaza.”
Mr Blair is now intending to persuade investors to pump billions of dollars of private capital into the West Bank and Gaza to kick-start the moribund economy, in preparation for eventual Palestinian statehood. At the Quartet office in East Jerusalem, Mr Blair’s Chief of Staff, Ruti Winterstein, defended his efforts against what she called the “unrealistic expectations” of many Palestinians.
“He regards the situation in Gaza as untenable,” she told me. “He regularly raises it with the Prime Minister and Defence Minister. Gaza is a big part of what he has been doing.” She listed his efforts to negotiate with the Israeli authorities on the issue of easing import restrictions on Gaza and said “he is working on a waste water treatment and desalinisation plant.”
Gaza does indeed need a water treatment plant, but it needs so much more, it’s hard to know where to start. And the problem, as Palestinians see it, is that Mr Blair hasn’t started.
The near-total Israeli blockade of Gaza and the closure, last year, of tunnels into Egypt, through which goods were smuggled, has had a devastating effect of the territory of 1.7-million people. Industrial enterprises have been forced to shut down, unemployment has doubled to 43 per cent, wages have plummeted and prices have shot up.
Today, Mr Cameron offered British support for business opportunities and jobs. He pledged £1.5m in grants to help 90 Palestinian companies target foreign investors and enter new markets. There’s another £1.5m on offer for skills training for 1,000 refugee women in Gaza.
After their 20 minute meeting this morning, Mr Blair said: “The British government has actually got a great opportunity here, because it is relatively trusted by both sides, which is quite rare in this situation.”
If Mr Blair had gone to Gaza more often, he probably wouldn’t have been moved to make such a claim. Visiting Britons don’t often get far there without being lectured on what is universally portrayed as the British betrayal of Palestine by Arthur James Balfour, the Foreign Secretary 97 years ago.
The Balfour Declaration which was sent to the Zionist Federation, states that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” as long as nothing is done that might “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”
In Gaza, Palestinians have long memories. And a short fuse.
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