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What’s Behind Tony Blair’s Pressure on Israel? It’s Tough Love, Some Say

May 2, 2003
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As the long-delayed “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace finally sees daylight, British Prime Minister Tony Blair may be inclined to take some credit for pushing the process forward.

Israeli officials don’t think he deserves much.

Blair’s frequent and vocal interventions in the past year have been “not at all helpful,” one Israeli source, who asked not to be named, told JTA.

“The closer the war with Iraq got, the more vigorous the United Kingdom’s courting of the Islamic world got,” the source said.

“Some of it was pathetic,” the source said, citing Blair’s promise last summer to get Israel and the Palestinians talking to each other “by the end of the year.”

“The Americans said: ‘What year?'” the source said.

“They would like to show that they are doing something. But people in Israel are saying, ‘This is a game for them. For us, it’s our lives,’ ” the Israeli added.

Israel has publicly and sharply rebuked Blair, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the British ambassador to Israel more than once since the beginning of the year.

Dov Weisglass, a top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said remarks about the road map Blair made at the beginning of April were “inappropriate and unbalanced,” calling Britain’s position “extreme.”

Israel was even angrier when, in March, Straw appeared to compare Israel’s record at the United Nations to Iraq’s.

Israel called the remarks “worrisome and outrageous,” and summoned Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles and criticized him.

“They do not contribute to the peace process, and might even hinder progress toward achieving a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry told Cowper-Coles.

Aware of Israel’s irritation, Blair gave a long interview to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot on the eve of Passover.

“I have great respect for what Israel has achieved and that is why I am so anxious that we create a situation in which Israel can feel real confidence and security and stability,” he told the newspaper, describing himself as “a real friend of Israel.”

The Israeli source concedes that point: “Blair, and Straw too, are friends of Israel. I understand their predicament.”

The predicament, another observer says, is that Blair heads a Labor party with a strong pro-Palestinian wing.

“In the 1980s, Israel was an issue of totemic significance for the Labor left,” said Matthew Harris, a spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, a lobbying group. “They saw it as being central to all the problems of the Middle East — which it is not.

“And they still have in the back of their minds an obsession with Israel,” Harris said of the Labor rank and file, many of whom opposed Blair on the Iraq war.

“He has to toss them a bone because they didn’t drag him down” over Iraq, Harris said.

Stuart Polak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel, agreed.

Blair urged President Bush to make statements in praise of the road map to “save his own skin,” Polak said, “which is astounding when you look at” Labor’s huge majority in the British Parliament.

A record proportion of Blair’s own party voted against him on the Iraq war, but the government motion to go to war still passed easily, with support from much of the governing Labor and the opposition Conservative parties.

Only the small, centrist Liberal Democrat grouping took a party-line position against the war.

Amid the criticism, Blair has found unexpected defenders.

Malcolm Rifkind, a Conservative former foreign secretary and defense secretary — and a Jew with family in Israel — is among them.

“The British audience is puzzled that there is so much difficulty in recognizing that” the Israel-Palestinian conflict “has been the defining issue for most of the people in the region in the last 50 years,” Rifkind told JTA.

If some criticize the United States for lacking Blair’s enthusiasm for the road map, it’s because they recognize “that it is the only country outside the region that has any influence,” Rifkind said.

David Mencer, who as director of Labor Friends of Israel is close to the government, said Blair sees Israeli-Arab peace as an important goal.

“He believes in processes and getting people talking,” Mencer said, pointing to Blair’s progress in the Northern Ireland conflict.

After 30 years of stalemate and bloodshed in Northern Ireland, Blair achieved a breakthrough because he kept negotiations going “no matter how odious the partners were,” Mencer said.

Blair compares himself to President Clinton, believing that his pro-Israel credentials are so strong he can push Israel toward uncomfortable compromises, Mencer said.

“He considers himself the most pro-Israel politician in Europe, which he is,” Mencer said. “He has never criticized Israel for taking action against terrorism. His only question is, ‘Where is this going?’ “

Blair also thinks the time is right for a paradigm shift in the Middle East, Mencer says.

“As in the last Gulf conflict, there is some momentum created and a hope we can get everything sorted out at once,” he said.

Blair thinks he already has made a positive contribution by pushing for the appointment of a prime minister in the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Parliament’s confirmation of Mahmoud Abbas this week overcame the final obstacle to releasing the road map.

But the Israeli source refuses to give Blair credit for that.

“The U.K. was not at all helpful in getting a prime minister appointed,” the source said. “Not even the last compromise. That was the Egyptians.”

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