Guest blogger: 10 points for Tony Blair

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images On Sunday, Tony Blair, in his new job as Middle East peace envoy, spelled out plans for getting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving again. He is to work on building up Palestinian institutions and nudging Israel to ease impediments to the economy in the West Bank, in the hope that this will ...

599154_070924_blair_05.jpg
599154_070924_blair_05.jpg

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Tony Blair, in his new job as Middle East peace envoy, spelled out plans for getting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving again. He is to work on building up Palestinian institutions and nudging Israel to ease impediments to the economy in the West Bank, in the hope that this will boost Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and weaken support for Hamas in Gaza. He is supposed to leave the big political issues to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to hash out in advance of a November summit—though nobody seriously expects him to stay away from them. But can he do better than James Wolfensohn, the last Quartet envoy, who ultimately failed to make headway with an even more limited mandate? Gideon Lichfield, Jerusalem correspondent for The Economist and blogger on fugitivepeace.com, offers him some practical advice.

Don't underestimate the Palestinian street’s distrust of you. Not because you supported the Iraq war—Palestinians care much more about their own problems. But most of them assume that you are here to recreate a pro-Western Palestinian client state in the best case (which is essentially true), and cooperate with Israel to ensure that an independent Palestine never arises in the worst case.
Don't underestimate the extent to which Palestinian leaders will undermine the national interest to protect their personal ones. Learn all the rivalries—those within Fatah especially—and assume that they take precedence over good sense and decency, unless you see evidence to the contrary.
Don't underestimate the incompetence and backstabbing at senior levels in the Palestinian institutions, including Abbas's office. Improving equipment for the Palestinian police or training for mid-level bureaucrats is easy. The stumbling blocks to progress will be individual officials with privileges and influence who want to hold on to them.
Don’t rely too much on Abbas to make changes. He is timid and non-confrontational. He has got to where he is by making his peace with some of the most corrupt and obstructionist Fatah leaders. His reluctance to remove difficult people, create enemies and upset political balances will be one of your main constraints.
Similarly, don't overestimate Israeli leaders' ability to deliver on promises. One reason is political: Ehud Olmert’s coalition government looks solid at the moment, but the winds can shift and allies can become opponents with astonishing rapidity. The other reason is operational. Even if the government orders something, its authority can quickly peter out on the ground in the West Bank, where settlement leaders and local army commanders are used to a high degree of autonomy, and sympathetic bureaucrats often help them find ways around the law.
At the same time, don’t buy all the Israelis’ excuses. Olmert knows better than anyone how to use coalition politics to his advantage—including to make it look like he’s hemmed in when he isn’t.
Be wary of the support of other Arab leaders. Having them on board for the November summit and beyond is essential to this process's credibility, and yours. But each has his own agenda on the Palestinian question, which depends on how it affects his internal domestic issues. You'll need to find a balance between having them involved and keeping them at arms’ length.
For all these reasons, try to create a clear and public plan with identifiable goals. If you don’t set goals, the street will distrust your motives and the leaders will exploit uncertainties to their own ends. Setting goals may set you up for failure, but at least then you’ll be able to pin blame on those who deserve it.
Don’t take your eye off the long term. It’s tempting to focus on what's immediately achievable—some checkpoints removed here, better policing there, more funding for schools, more ties between Israeli and Palestinian businesses. These are good, but they will make no difference to Palestinians' opinions of Fatah—or of you—unless they perceive them as stepping stones in a longer-term plan with statehood at the end. Israel wants to keep this timetable vague; you need to find something that can give Palestinians hope.
Resist the urge simply to forget about Gaza "for the time being". It’s a natural temptation; indeed, your mandate pretty much requires it. Hamas is in charge there; it hates Israel; Israel and America hate it; Fatah hates it even more. Surely the best thing is to leave Gaza to fester so Hamas loses popularity. But watch out: The more Hamas weakens, the more Gaza’s clan chieftains will take over. Every clan contain members of both parties, and their clan loyalty comes first. Once Gaza is run by warlords, imposing any sort of political order there will be extremely hard. Even though it’s not part of your mandate, start thinking about the mechanism for the eventual transition, otherwise your efforts will be worthless.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Tony Blair, in his new job as Middle East peace envoy, spelled out plans for getting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving again. He is to work on building up Palestinian institutions and nudging Israel to ease impediments to the economy in the West Bank, in the hope that this will boost Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and weaken support for Hamas in Gaza. He is supposed to leave the big political issues to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to hash out in advance of a November summit—though nobody seriously expects him to stay away from them. But can he do better than James Wolfensohn, the last Quartet envoy, who ultimately failed to make headway with an even more limited mandate? Gideon Lichfield, Jerusalem correspondent for The Economist and blogger on fugitivepeace.com, offers him some practical advice.

  1. Don’t underestimate the Palestinian street’s distrust of you. Not because you supported the Iraq war—Palestinians care much more about their own problems. But most of them assume that you are here to recreate a pro-Western Palestinian client state in the best case (which is essentially true), and cooperate with Israel to ensure that an independent Palestine never arises in the worst case.
  2. Don’t underestimate the extent to which Palestinian leaders will undermine the national interest to protect their personal ones. Learn all the rivalries—those within Fatah especially—and assume that they take precedence over good sense and decency, unless you see evidence to the contrary.
  3. Don’t underestimate the incompetence and backstabbing at senior levels in the Palestinian institutions, including Abbas’s office. Improving equipment for the Palestinian police or training for mid-level bureaucrats is easy. The stumbling blocks to progress will be individual officials with privileges and influence who want to hold on to them.
  4. Don’t rely too much on Abbas to make changes. He is timid and non-confrontational. He has got to where he is by making his peace with some of the most corrupt and obstructionist Fatah leaders. His reluctance to remove difficult people, create enemies and upset political balances will be one of your main constraints.
  5. Similarly, don’t overestimate Israeli leaders’ ability to deliver on promises. One reason is political: Ehud Olmert’s coalition government looks solid at the moment, but the winds can shift and allies can become opponents with astonishing rapidity. The other reason is operational. Even if the government orders something, its authority can quickly peter out on the ground in the West Bank, where settlement leaders and local army commanders are used to a high degree of autonomy, and sympathetic bureaucrats often help them find ways around the law.
  6. At the same time, don’t buy all the Israelis’ excuses. Olmert knows better than anyone how to use coalition politics to his advantage—including to make it look like he’s hemmed in when he isn’t.
  7. Be wary of the support of other Arab leaders. Having them on board for the November summit and beyond is essential to this process’s credibility, and yours. But each has his own agenda on the Palestinian question, which depends on how it affects his internal domestic issues. You’ll need to find a balance between having them involved and keeping them at arms’ length.
  8. For all these reasons, try to create a clear and public plan with identifiable goals. If you don’t set goals, the street will distrust your motives and the leaders will exploit uncertainties to their own ends. Setting goals may set you up for failure, but at least then you’ll be able to pin blame on those who deserve it.
  9. Don’t take your eye off the long term. It’s tempting to focus on what’s immediately achievable—some checkpoints removed here, better policing there, more funding for schools, more ties between Israeli and Palestinian businesses. These are good, but they will make no difference to Palestinians’ opinions of Fatah—or of you—unless they perceive them as stepping stones in a longer-term plan with statehood at the end. Israel wants to keep this timetable vague; you need to find something that can give Palestinians hope.
  10. Resist the urge simply to forget about Gaza “for the time being”. It’s a natural temptation; indeed, your mandate pretty much requires it. Hamas is in charge there; it hates Israel; Israel and America hate it; Fatah hates it even more. Surely the best thing is to leave Gaza to fester so Hamas loses popularity. But watch out: The more Hamas weakens, the more Gaza’s clan chieftains will take over. Every clan contain members of both parties, and their clan loyalty comes first. Once Gaza is run by warlords, imposing any sort of political order there will be extremely hard. Even though it’s not part of your mandate, start thinking about the mechanism for the eventual transition, otherwise your efforts will be worthless.

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