Tony Blair Looks Ahead

The former prime minister and Middle East envoy offers his thoughts on the peace process, austerity measures, and whether he could have prevented the financial crisis.

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was named envoy to the Middle East in 2007 -- representing the "quartet" of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations -- he knew what it meant: "huge intensity and work." Now three years later, after the breakdown of the most recent peace talks, the conflict seems as intractable as ever. In conversation with Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson, Blair discussed the most knotty problems in the region, from settlements to Iran to the movement to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine. And with a new age of austerity dawning at Downing Street, Blair had a few key things to say about his legacy and the future of his famous Third Way politics.

Foreign Policy: I understand that you met with some Palestinian leaders yesterday evening; what are your thoughts on the direction the peace process has gone, particularly on the Obama administration's push on the settlements?

Tony Blair: We've hit an impasse here. The challenge is to get an effective negotiation going, [one] that is credible. And the question is how do you give credibility to that negotiation -- and the settlement freeze was one way of doing that. We can't proceed on that basis now, but we can look for other ways of giving credibility to the negotiation. The important thing is to get a negotiation underway, in a context in which both sides have the confidence that this is a real negotiation, with both parties actually wanting to narrow the differences and reach a deal. Obviously, it's a setback for the process, but it's not a setback that should mean that we give up on it -- on the contrary, we've got to redouble our efforts and find a way forward.

When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was named envoy to the Middle East in 2007 — representing the "quartet" of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations — he knew what it meant: "huge intensity and work." Now three years later, after the breakdown of the most recent peace talks, the conflict seems as intractable as ever. In conversation with Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson, Blair discussed the most knotty problems in the region, from settlements to Iran to the movement to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine. And with a new age of austerity dawning at Downing Street, Blair had a few key things to say about his legacy and the future of his famous Third Way politics.

Foreign Policy: I understand that you met with some Palestinian leaders yesterday evening; what are your thoughts on the direction the peace process has gone, particularly on the Obama administration’s push on the settlements?

Tony Blair: We’ve hit an impasse here. The challenge is to get an effective negotiation going, [one] that is credible. And the question is how do you give credibility to that negotiation — and the settlement freeze was one way of doing that. We can’t proceed on that basis now, but we can look for other ways of giving credibility to the negotiation. The important thing is to get a negotiation underway, in a context in which both sides have the confidence that this is a real negotiation, with both parties actually wanting to narrow the differences and reach a deal. Obviously, it’s a setback for the process, but it’s not a setback that should mean that we give up on it — on the contrary, we’ve got to redouble our efforts and find a way forward.

FP: What’s your take on the movement to unilaterally recognize the independence of Palestine, as countries such as Brazil have done?

TB: Essentially, when you’re in a process where the ultimate agreement requires both sides to agree, unilateral moves are usually an expression of frustration, and in a sense that’s what this is. There’s nothing that can substitute or be better for the two sides [than] coming to [an] agreement, together. Because even if you go down this unilateral path, you can’t bring the other party with you; you go back to the same issue, which is, how do you get an agreement?

FP: You touch on this a little bit in your autobiography, but I wonder what has changed about the way you see this conflict now that you’re out of office and in the envoy position as opposed to when you were the head of government.

TB: There’s one big and profound change, which is I now believe [in] this state-building exercise that the Palestinians are engaged in — which is really about ground-up, you know, how do you build effective institutions, security, rule of law, an economy on the Palestinian side. I now think that is absolutely essential to the politics of this, because I think the basic problem is that we think that we can go back to the year 2000 and begin where President Clinton left off. But what has happened in the meantime [are] issues that are of profound significance to the credibility and trust that people have in this process. Each side has its narrative about this crisis, so the breakdown of the peace negotiations, the 2000 Intifada, the disengagement from Gaza, the takeover by Hamas — each side will have its own narrative about why those things happened. But the cumulative effect is that you have got to rebuild trust in the reality on the ground — security on the Israeli side, lifting the occupation on the Palestinian side — in order then to get the politics moving again.

FP: A bit of a metaphysical question, but if you had to make a choice between dealing with the Middle East peace process or the issue of Iranian nuclear proliferation, where would you direct your attention?

TB: At both.

FP: Wrong answer. You only get one.

TB: The truth is, they are both very very important — linked actually, because the acquisition by Iran of nuclear capability goes alongside their attempts to disrupt the peace process. Likewise, if you are pushing forward and making progress on the Israel-Palestine question, it enormously empowers those moderate, modernizing forces in the region. So, the two are actually linked, really, and we should be dealing with both.

FP: I want to turn now to the financial crisis and to Britain in particular, with the new government. Do you believe that their austerity program is the correct medicine for what ails?

TB: I don’t really want to comment on the British political scene. All countries have deficit reduction plans at the moment, and that’s not a debate I want to get into, really.

FP: Maybe to frame it in the context of your own government then, do you believe that there are things you would have done differently economically, signs you could have seen for the financial crisis?

TB: I think it’s more — the problem with the financial crisis is that people didn’t spot what was happening within that part of the financial sector. But I actually think the reform program, both within Britain that I was implementing and the challenge to the European social model — I think the need to address those challenges [that our reform programs were addressing, such as health care and public services] have been accelerated by the financial crisis. But I don’t think they’ve been created by [the financial crisis]; they were there in any event.

FP: I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on the Third Way, whether there is still a role for that in modern politics.

TB: I still think the Third Way is basically where politics is, because this is all about a 21st century in which people have learned that government is necessary, but government can also be bureaucratic and a vested interest. It’s all about a strategic enabling and empowering government, not one that’s sitting on people, and that means you need a dynamic private sector, and you need welfare systems that are getting people off welfare and into work. You need public services that are far more responsive to the needs of the ordinary consumer of those services. All of that Third Way stuff you need. I think today’s social paradigm is far more to do with being progressive and liberal on issues to do things like gay rights, and so on, but it is also very tough on issues like law and order and personal safety, so I think that set of Third Way positions is still absolutely where we should be.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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