February 22, 2015
In Blog News
Published: 02.21.15, 23:54 / Israel News
On Sunday, Tony Blair was in the Gaza Strip, his first visit there since 2009. It was a surprise visit – his guards deliberated up until the last moment whether to allow him to join the convoy.
He started his visit at a checkpoint in the Hamas-run territory. He avoided meeting the Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, but met three members of the Government of National Consensus established last year in an attempt to end years of infighting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority – the ministers for Labor, Justice and Welfare.
The convoy took the western road, through Beit Lahia and the Shata refugee camp. They took him to Saja’iyya to see the destruction from Operation Protective Edge last summer; they took him to an UNRWA school to see how Gazans who lost their homes are now living.
The highlight of the visit was a meeting with 90 businesspeople – old and young. They received him extremely warmly, and he flashed them his million-dollar smile. And at the end, they all stood in line for a selfie with him.
Tony Blair in Gaza City. ‘The reality is very difficult.’ (Photo: AFP)
Blair, now 62, was a Labor Party man who led the British government for 10 years. His historic achievement was the agreement that ended the decades-old conflict in Northern Ireland. Immediately after he stepped down in 2007, he was appointed the Quartet Representative to the Middle East. He represents the combined will of the US, Russian, the EU and the UN – if such a will even exists.
He is the region every three to four weeks, when he meets heads of state, urges them to reconcile, to cooperate and promote peace. They listen politely, and afterwards do the exact opposite. Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, only the smile remains after him.
I met him in Jerusalem on Monday. What did you see in Gaza, I asked.
“The reality is very difficult,” Blair says. “This is bad for them, and it’s bad for all of us. The problem goes beyond the physical destruction of the war; Gaza has been abandoned for years.
“The responsibility for the situation lies on all of us – the international community, Hamas, the PA, Egypt and Israel. Terror comes out of Gaza, and the question is what can be done to stop it: Do you open Gaza up or shut it down? Israel has faced this dilemma for a long time, and now Egypt is going through the same process. I say – let’s change the reality completely.”
You’re a practical man, I say, what do you suggest be done?
“Right,” he replies, “that’s why I say the situation cannot be left the way it is. It’s important for you, for Israel. You cannot live with rockets from Gaza. On the other hand, you do not want to reoccupy. This means that the next military conflict is not far off.
“I suggest acting on three fronts: First, rehabilitate the water and energy infrastructure, let in construction materials in a way that will not harm security, (and) support the economy.
“Second, bring about a change in Palestinian politics – pose difficult questions to Hamas: Will they accept an arrangement with Israel based on the 1967 lines, are they prepared to end terrorism, are they prepared to end their ties with outside terror forces?
“Third, Egypt. The Egyptian demands on security from Hamas must be met – and then that will change its approach towards Gaza.”
What makes you think this is possible, I ask.
“The regional picture,” he states. “I hear from Arab leaders of state the same things I hear from Israel: ISIS is dangerous, Iran is dangerous. Israel doesn’t understand how much the regional reality has changed. The entire region is in a state of upheaval, and we continue to look at the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict as if nothing has changed.
“I believe that Israel can create a partnership with countries in the region – Saudi Arabia, for example, and the Gulf states. The blockage is the Palestinian problem. This is a highly charged issue, emotional, even for moderate forces. The change is, of course, also dependent upon the Palestinians. I say to the Israelis that peace doesn’t only depend on you, but you must strive for peace. If you don’t, your situation in the world will worsen.”
Visiting an UNRWA school in Gaza. (Photo: AFP)
You talk of strategic change, I say, but even the money pledged to reconstruct Gaza has not arrived.
“The money isn’t coming in because at the moment there’s no united Palestinian government,” says Blair. “The PA and Hamas both need to change their position. I have always said that the Palestinian unity government must be based on the peace process.
“Time after time, the two sides to the conflict (Israel and the Palestinians) were put into a room, on the assumption that if they sit together, they’ll reach an agreement. I say, first of all, let’s change the conditions (on the ground). Let’s start with the steps that Israel can take in order to improve (Palestinian) daily lives. It’s not hard to do that.”
What do you think about the clash between Netanyahu and the Obama government, I ask. Can Netanyahu’s trip to Washington prevent the coming agreement with Iran?
“You have to wait and see what’s put on the table,” says Blair. “At the end of the day, the Israeli and American interests are identical. I have no doubt about that.”
As we’re talking, senior Hamas official Mussa Abu Marzouk announces that his organization has rejected the demands presented by Blair in Gaza. Blair doesn’t give up. On Monday, he went to Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah. He came here from Cairo, where he pushed his regional vision. Don’t you miss Ireland, I ask. The war there was so simple, so innocent compared to our wars.
He laughs, a broad, deep laugh. The laugh of a man who has seen it all and done it all. Kito de Boer, the new head of the Quartet office who joined our conversation, also laughs. We laughed and laughed, until it hurt.