16 Mar 2015

Is it the end of the road for Tony Blair as Middle East envoy?

Tony Blair is thinking of getting a new kind of job in the Middle East. He’s been an envoy ever since the day he left Downing Street almost eight years ago and started working for the so called “quartet” (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia).

Mr Blair’s critics describe his role as “untenable” because of his poor relationship with the Palestinian leadership (he unsuccessfully tried, for example, to persuade it not to apply for statehood at the UN).

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives for the Afghanistan service of commemoration at St Paul's Cathedral in London

The former prime minister would probably agree that things cannot go on as they are. His role is limited to promoting economic growth in the Palestinian territories, where the economy has gone into reverse. During his tenure as envoy there have been three massive assaults on Gaza, with the loss of thousands of lives, while hundreds of rockets have been fired from inside Gaza at Israel.

Yet the irony which escapes some of his critics, still fuming at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his moneymaking prowess advising dodgy regimes, is that if Mr Blair had been more and not less involved in the so called Middle East peace process, he might have achieved greater success.

In 2013 he oversaw a $4bn plan to stimulate growth, but it was stymied by the failure of US-brokered peace talks and Israel’s subsequent war with Gaza.

Mr Blair’s pleading with the Israelis has achieved little. He persuaded them to release radio frequencies to expand the mobile phone industry in the West Bank. He lobbied to have military roadblocks lifted.

But the politics, and Binyamin Netanyahu in particular, have thwarted the economics. Israel’s settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank continue to expand.  If Mr Blair was ever considered an honest broker, it is a title he may well have lost, even if most of what has gone wrong is not his fault.

Mr Blair’s friends say he is weary of being blamed for political failure. They say he doesn’t want to walk away but seeks a reconfigured and broader role.

The main question is whether the 61-year-old former British prime minister can win back credibility among Palestinians. I doubt there is a conflict of interest between his diplomacy and his desire to make money; but there are only so many hours in the day, and by giving his role as envoy one week per month at most, the globetrotting Mr Blair is himself signalling that there is little he can achieve when the political climate has been against him for years.

Maybe that political climate will change if Mr Netanyahu is not re-elected. That could give Mr Blair a new lease of life in a redefined and expanded role. His address book of regional contacts must be in a league of its own. But my sense is that European diplomats, alongside the Palestinian leadership, feel that enough is enough – though his friends in Washington may still be protecting  and keeping faith with Tony Blair.

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