With His Term Winding Down, Tony Blair Seeks Mideast Legacy

Tony Blair has made clear that he wants to use his remaining time as Britain’s prime minister to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he believes is the crux of the wider conflict between the West and the Muslim world. But Blair’s recent comments about engaging Syria and Iran to help resolve conflicts, especially in Iraq and between Israel and the Palestinians, received short shrift this week from Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it — in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found, where the extremism flourishes, with a propaganda that may be, indeed is, totally false; but is nonetheless attractive to much of the Arab street,” Blair said last week at the annual Lord Mayor’s banquet in London.

“There is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran,” said Blair, who has pledged to make way for a successor within a year. “On the contrary, we should start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core.”

From there, Blair said, progress could be made on Lebanon, and relatively moderate Arab and Muslim countries could be marshaled to bring peace to Iraq.

“We should be standing up for, empowering, respecting those with a moderate and modern view of the faith of Islam everywhere,” he said.

Iran and Syria, he added, had to be offered a way of helping peace efforts, not hindering them.

In a briefing Tuesday before meeting Blair, Livni responded to a question from JTA by saying that it was in “Israel’s interest to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regardless of the Iranian issue” or the Syrians.

Quoting another speech by Blair, made in Los Angeles earlier this year, that the real Middle East conflict is “between moderates and extremists,” Livni added that Israel was “in the moderates’ camp.”

A senior Israeli diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told JTA that Blair’s comments were “less dramatic for Israel” than they were being portrayed.

“Do you expect” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “to suddenly accept Israel’s right to exist and stop mocking or denying the Holocaust and be helpful with Hezbollah and Shi’a insurgents in Iraq?” the Israeli asked rhetorically. “No, we don’t, either.”

On Syria, however, the source thought progress could be made.

“After all, we have been in contact with the Syrians before and it all broke down over 15 meters of shoreline on the Sea of Galilee. It was only a matter of prestige which prevented a deal being done,” the source said. “They aren’t as hard-nosed as the Iranians. All they are worried about is that democracy might catch on, and that would be the end of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime.”

But what’s driving Blair now that he’s coming to the end of almost 10 years in office?

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Blair made clear his concern that “there is increasing not just poverty and despair on the Palestinian side but also disintegration, and that is very dangerous. So we either decide that we are going to take this moment and use it to drive forward, or obviously there’s a danger that the whole region takes a wrong turn.”

Regarded by the United Kingdom’s Jewish community as a true friend of Israel, Blair also stressed that he believed “totally in supporting Israel’s security. But the truth is the ultimate security lies in a viable and democratic Palestinian state and in resolving the issues with Israel’s neighbors.”

Blair also is a man of faith, and a close associate told the Observer newspaper that when Blair traveled to Israel as opposition leader for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in 1995, “it was partly the idea of seeing Bill Clinton and Jordan’s King Hussein and others who deeply wanted peace in mourning for Rabin and rededicating themselves to making it work. But it was something else, too, which Blair dislikes talking about in public — his deep personal faith. This is a guy who has a Bible next to his bed, who has read Jewish sources and the Koran, and it all seemed to come together.”

At the end of the day, however, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office say Blair has few illusions about making dramatic breakthroughs in the Middle East. Despite sending his personal envoy, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus late last month to sound out the Assad regime, he has only to remember the abortive Camp David and Taba talks, which marred Bill Clinton’s last days in office.

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