Tony Blair talks Mideast peace

Posted May 1, 2009

Below is a partial transcript of a discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Times editorial staff members. Late in the discussion, Blair addresses his relationship with President Bush and the myriad challenges faced by President Obama.

Jim Newton, L.A. Times: why don't you start by telling us what brings you here. I know a little bit from chatting on the way up and then I'm sure we'll have many questions for you.

Tony Blair: Well actually the main thing I'm doing, specifically here in Los Angeles is that there's the U.N. anti-malaria day being launched in four days. … And they're launching the U.N. Malaria Day, which is about a whole program that is fighting malaria in Africa and specifically there's a gala dinner here tonight that we're attending where we're raising money for the anti-malaria campaign. And my foundation, which is about religious inter-faith, is engaged in this since we're trying to mobilize the faith communities to help with the distribution and the purchase and distribution of the bed nets and the medicines and so on as part of the campaign. So that's basically the reason that I'm here, so it's sort of based on my foundation but, obviously what I've done since. …

Well, the last time I was here was when I came as prime minister I think. … Really the four areas of my life since leaving office, is I do, obviously, the Quartet role in the Middle East, I do my foundation which is about religious inter-faith, I've got a project on climate change and I do projects on governance in Africa. So those are the four bits of my life. And what I decided to do was to take all those issues that I was most passionate about but couldn't work out the answer to when I was in the government and see if I could, by concentrating more emphatically on them in the political after-life, get to a better understanding of how to deal with them.

So in relation to the Middle East peace process, my theory has been, which I am now trying to test out, which is that you cannot create this two-state solution unless you build a Palestinian state from the bottom up as well as try and negotiate the contours of the state from the top down. In respect to the religious issue, I think that religious ideology is a major question for the 21st century, and the issue is can you get faiths to peacefully coexist with each other or will they become a reactionary force in an era of globalization, pulling people apart whilst globalization pushes them together.

In respect to climate change, it's what is the global deal because that's what I -- everyone knows it's a problem, the question is what is the answer that gets, effectively, America and China in the same deal, and that was what I focused on in government but couldn't get to the answer.

And finally in relation to Africa, the projects that I have are projects supporting governance in Africa, since again my theory after a long time in office and trebling aid to Africa, was that although aid is important, the key and fundamental challenge for African governments is a challenge of governance. And that if they don't sort out their governing systems then we can pump in a very large amount of money but it's not going to make the difference. So those are the four areas. So in each of the areas there's kind of the thought that right, there's unfinished business here.

Newton: Well, I'm sure many of my colleagues will have questions but let me start. On the Middle East -- change in American administrations do anything to change the prospects for your work in the Middle East? Where do you see things headed from here?

Blair: Yeah, I mean, there's a huge potential now. First, because the new administration has taken this on from day one, which is entirely sensible, so people know that they're going to be dealing with this administration for, you know, four years at least. And secondly, because I think the appointment of Sen. [George J.] Mitchell, that's -- they've appointed someone very experienced, you know, someone I worked very closely with in Northern Ireland, and there's a whole sense of the issue being taken with the seriousness that it deserves. Now, actually I think in many ways the Annapolis process achieved more than people think but it came at the end of the [Bush] administration and so it was far tougher and also coincided, I'm afraid, with a period of paralysis in Israeli politics.

And what you've actually had in the last, I mean I've been doing this kind, you know, for 18 months now, but truthfully in the last nine months there has been so much political stasis, as it were, as a result of the situation in Israel and then you've got a change in American administration and then what's been happening on the Palestinian side, that I think you've got the chance now to kind of get the whole thing moving again. And, you know, I think it is both possible to do but utterly essential to the whole of that region and the wider world that it happens.

Nick Goldberg, L.A. Times: Do you get a sense that there's less support now for the two-state solution than there has been? I mean, between [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's] new government and [Avigdor] Lieberman, you know, declining Hamas in power in Gaza without any strong commitment to a two-state solution, how do you reinvigorate that idea that seemed to be everyone's idea back in the 1990s?

Blair: I think by realizing that the problem is not that people have lost their desire for a two-state solution, they've lost their faith in the credibility of it being achieved. So it's a credibility question, not a question on basic conviction and belief. I think most people, when they take a step back and look at this, understand that there are only two alternatives -- you have a two-state solution or a one-state solution, but I don't know what the one-state solution is that doesn't lead to a hell of a fight. So at some point you'll have to come back to that basic issue.

Now, I was out in Israel just a short time ago and Palestine, and I had meetings with the Israeli prime minister and with the new foreign minister and so on. I think the issue for me is this, and it comes back to my, what I was saying to you at the very beginning about my theory of why this hasn't worked so far: There are two possible analyses of the new Israeli government's position. The first is that they want, as it were, an economic peace in substitute for the two-state solution. The second is that what they're saying is that the only state that they will accept is a state that has sufficient of the content of statehood in terms of how it's governed and how it's run, whether its economy can develop, and that what they will therefore try to do is to assist in the process of building that state, if you like, from the bottom up.

Now my analysis is that they are more in the second than in the first, and so I don't believe that it is a hopeless call with the new Israeli government. But I do think what we need in order to make this process work is we need a simultaneous political negotiation that is credible and major change on the ground. Now, in the conversations I've had with the Israeli government, they are open to making these changes on the ground, but we need to get that done and to put it in a proper form that's deliverable.

So I don't think it's that people -- and I'm sure about this on the Palestinian side incidentally -- it's not that people think, you know, two-state solution, well, that's just a thing of the past. They've become so frustrated by what has happened that they can't see how it can be achieved. But my point is, every time you analyze this problem you come back to the fact that it is either a two-state solution or what else is it?

Marjorie Miller, L.A. Times: What changes on the ground are the Israelis open to right now?

Blair: I think the, what they should be open to, which is a different matter and this is the point that you need with the new administration to be ensuring we get this in place, what we need on the ground are two things: We need a program of change in the West Bank -- both economy and security -- and capacity building on the Palestinian side, which we could put together. I mean, you know I can go through the detail of it but it's perfectly clear what needs to happen. And in respect to Gaza, this is maybe more difficult but it's my very strong view, is that we need a change of policy on the blockade, we need to ease that and we need to get help in to the people, that the policy of isolating Gaza in this way doesn't work.

Newton: How receptive is Israel to that? As you said this is what they should perhaps do.

Blair: I think if I'm being frank about it, I think in respect to the first, the change program on the West Bank, they are genuinely open to it. In respect to Gaza, they're worried, and for perfectly understandable reasons. But I believe myself that the important thing is that, for the moment we cannot resolve the situation in Gaza but we can manage it, and the sensible thing is to manage it in a way which makes it hard for the extreme elements in Gaza to ratchet up another conflict, because, as we've just seen from what happened in Gaza before, I mean and these conflicts now I think follow a pattern or these operations they follow a pattern, which is that there is an initial series of attacks on Israel, there is then a retaliation, and then within a very short space of time for the world at large, the origins of it are forgotten, the focus is all on the retaliation and then that creates its own reverberations in terms of the politics of the region -- so I think we want to avoid that situation if we possibly can. And, in any event, certainly from, both from when I was in Gaza a short time ago but also in the conversations I've had with people from Gaza over now an extended period of time, I think that although Hamas has a very strong military grip on Gaza I think, in terms of the society in Gaza, they are far more open to a moderate solution than --

Bruce Wallace, L.A. Times: So you've talked to them?

Blair: Yeah, I mean I've talked to the people. I mean I don't talk to Hamas because it's the position of the Quartet that we don't but you know when you -- I mean Gaza is a, one thing to realize about Gaza is that it's 20 miles by five miles. It's a small -- I don't know what the size of the broader Los Angeles area is but it's --

Newton: It would fit neatly on the west side of Los Angeles.


Blair: This is a small strip of -- but the people that you talk to in the civic society there, in the various groups, I mean obviously they, you know, they're living there. For the people that are living there, they're mixing with these people the entire time.

Goldberg: Do you believe it's time for Israel to talk directly to Hamas?

Blair: No, I think what it is time to do, now, is to lay out for the people in Gaza a very clear prospect of a way forward. Now, it's not that Hamas aren't being talked to at the moment, because they are, the Egyptians are talking to them the entire time. Actually there are others talking to them, I mean I don't know, but I suspect there are European countries that will talk to them, there are masses of people that talk to them. For the moment, that's not the question, the question is not a failure of communication, the question is what do we do to get a different situation in Gaza.

David Lauter, L.A. Times: To take you back to something you said a moment ago, you were talking about the two different analyses of what's actually on the mind of the Israeli government -- either an economic peace or a state built from the ground up. But it certainly seems at least elements of the Israeli coalition have something else in mind, which is greater Israel. There are large parts of the current coalition that have not abandoned that idea and favor a one-state solution as long as it's theirs and would prefer just to keep everybody talking as long as possible to push it down the road in the hopes that something'll happen. So how do you deal with that?

Blair: I was talking very specifically about, I mean, the prime minister's position. The only way of dealing with that is to say no, because that will not work. And actually, it's not -- when Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon took the decision, both to get out of Gaza, and leave aside for a moment all the issues to do with the fence, or the wall, but there wasn't a sense then, a strategic acceptance, that however quite way you define the line to the east of that line is going to be a Palestinian state. Now, there is a real issue to do with settlements because the Palestinians feel very strongly, as does the whole of the world in that region, that if settlement activity increases you can put at risk the viability of having a Palestinian state. So there is a real issue there.

But I think on the basic principle of whether Israel is open to a Palestinian state, however much those people who take a different view have support within certain parts of the system or certain parts of Israeli politics, it is not a view that has any chance of prevailing either in international opinion or actually in the reality of the region. You know, I don't know how you would do such a thing, other than in circumstances where you would literally have a state of so-called greater Israel with a completely alienated Palestinian population growing within it. … And the people that I talked to within the Israeli system, not just on the civil and political side, but on the military side understand that very very well.

So whatever residual hankering after that solution there is, A) I do not think it remotely realistic and B) it is, I mean that is a recipe for a deepening conflict. … This is my whole point about this issue, is every time you look at it and analyze it you come back to one very simple truth, or two actually: One, this is of fundamental importance to the whole wider picture, to everything else that's happening in that region and broader than that region; and secondly, a two-state solution is the only solution that offers us the prospect of a lasting peace. So, you know we can …

L.A. Times reporter: Your strategy for Gaza still seems to suggest that you can choose your partners and you can isolate Hamas to a certain degree. I mean, could you have achieved the Good Friday agreement if you had not involved everybody? …

Blair: There is a slight misunderstanding about this sometimes. What we actually did, and in fact George Mitchell was intimately involved in this, was construct something called the Mitchell Principles, which were a series of principles that parties had to agree to, almost like a gateway to get into the process, of which the most important was a commitment to non-violence. Now that commitment, there were always huge debates as to whether it was adhered to or not, but it was a commitment that was given. Now, I think, what I'm really saying to you about Gaza is this: We're not in a position where we can resolve the Gaza question right now, but we can manage it far more effectively so that the people there are helped and so that we have the opportunity to make genuine real progress on the West Bank and over time, hopefully, to get to a situation where there can be a reunification of the politics between Gaza and the West Bank.

Now, you know, right at this moment, it's hard to see that happening. There have been unity talks, as you know, between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and those talks have not succeeded, I mean, they will continue. So there is something of a -- you know there's a stand-off there, and that's why I say my ambition for Gaza right now, right at this moment, is not greater than to manage it -- the people there are suffering needlessly -- and to prevent it erupting over the broader process. But there will come a point obviously when you have to take a more definitive position as to how you reunite Gaza and the West Bank since there will only be one Palestinian state.

Miller: How likely or possible do you think it is that Israel will move on Iran in some sort of military strike that would put Gaza so on the backburner?

Blair: Well this is where I think this issue is urgent, to do with Palestine and Israel. There is a view sometimes, that is where you've got a whole set of different questions, and so you chose which of those questions you want to deal with, and there are people who will say that to you in the region. They'll say, you know, look the Palestinian question is a major question but let's deal with the Iranian issue. I find it almost impossible to state in strong enough terms how much I believe that that is a mistaken view and that fundamental to dealing with any of the issues in this region is this question.

So the biggest mistake we could make, literally the biggest, is to say that this should be relegated because of the Iranian question. Because of course one of the issues is how Iran is using its power precisely with Hamas and with other players in the region. So what I would say is that in respect of Iran, Israel will not contemplate Iran having nuclear-weapons capability; I happen to think they are right in that. But all of these questions become easier to confront and resolve if there is progress on the Palestinian question, because it's, as I say, when you look at this region as a whole I think it -- in my view, but there are people who disagree with this but I think this even more strongly now than when I was in office -- these are not disconnected, different issues; they're pieces of one jigsaw. So that's why I think, you know, that it's a very difficult question. I think the new administration is absolutely right to engage with Iran but, you know, we have to see what they're prepared to do.

Miller: I suppose that the hardliners in Israel would respond that the nuclear issue, that Iran is and will pursue nuclear weapons regardless of what's going on in Gaza and that that's the existential threat, no matter what you do with Gaza or the Palestinians. Why would that mitigate it?

Blair: Because, I think the essential thing to realize about what is happening within this region is that of course it has its security dimension; it also has its hearts and minds dimension, and the two are linked in the sense that it is easier to accomplish your security objectives if you're winning the battle for hearts and minds. So, you know if you'd said a few years back that Iran would have the capability of going into these areas with Hamas and Palestine, Hezbollah, Lebanon and so on and so forth with areas, links with the Muslim Brotherhood around the region, people would have said, you know, not sure that can happen.

But the fact is, it can happen when they are using a position as, if you like, leverage on the whole Muslim world within that area. And that's why it's important that we understand the hearts and minds bit of this as well as the security aspect. So I don't, I'm not suggesting that if you make progress on the Israel-Palestine track that you somehow eliminate the issues in relation to Iran; you don't. But you do create a strong momentum in the region for peaceful resolution of these issues, and impatience or disagreement with those, like Iran, who are prepared to promote conflict. See what I mean?

So that's why I think this is such an important question. It's not that you can't, none of these things mean that you get rid of these very tough security questions, but they do change the context in the region within which those issues can be confronted and resolved.

Goldberg: You said that when you were there you met with Lieberman; how did you find him?

Blair: Well he was, I thought, completely open to the notion of change on the West Bank. I mean, obviously he has a … view that is not, he explained that the Israeli government were undergoing their strategic review of policy and they would come out with this in the next couple of weeks or so. You know, I long ago in politics learned to judge people on what they do rather than what they say, so I'll, we'll wait and see. And as I said, we had a perfectly constructive conversation around the changes I wanted to see on the West Bank. He obviously takes a very strong position on Hamas and so on but that's not unknown in Israel.

The question is, the question really to my mind for Israel is, I would never ask Israel to take risks with their security but are they prepared to get on board with helping the development of that Palestinian state. That's my issue, and while I always say to people in Israel is we've got to change the psychology of this from saying, you know, well if a state is created, OK; to it is in our interest to have a Palestinian state and we are actively going to help in its creation. So, on the West Bank there is much more that could be done, and remember the West Bank is, I don't know, more than five-sixths of the territory and two-thirds of the population. …

Miller: I'm curious how your new commitment to faith affects your ability to maneuver in the Mideast, especially in light of suspicions that the Iraq war was a crusade, the distrust of Western intentions against Islam. Does it help you to be seen as more of a person or faith, or does it hurt you to be seen as a Catholic?

Blair: First of all, you know, I think, I haven't changed my view, right. So people know that, but I would not underestimate the degree to which there are many people within the world of Islam who understand how severe and existential this struggle within Islam is, and want it dealt with, and don't seriously believe, even if they're passionately disagree with Iraq or Afghanistan, that it was a religious crusade. You know whatever people want to take phrases or words and say, well, really it was about that, I don't think people really believe that. And I think that in the region as a whole there is a very great interest now in this idea of religious inter-faith dialogue.

It's an interesting thing to me, because when I say to people who are outside of politics, you know I've started this foundation, it's about religious inter-faith, they ask why on Earth did you do that. The fascinating thing is when you talk to other political leaders they understand exactly why it's important. And I became even more, I mean it's something I believe in myself but I think there is a major political objective because I think partly this problem is cultural and religious. And so when people say, people often say to me, well this really doesn't have anything to do with religion. And I would say, well unfortunately the people who are engaged in it think it has. So you may want to say it's got nothing to do with how religion develops, but they passionately believe it is about their religious faith.

And I think what's very interesting is if you take for example the Saudi king and the initiatives he's made recently, both in the inter-faith area and within Saudi Arabia, this is all about saying we can peacefully coexist. What shows it? That people of different faith are coming together and working together, in dialogue together. Which is, really, to take on the fundamentalist view which is in a sense, we're in a battle to the death, there are believers and nonbelievers, and you're on one side or the other. So that's why this issue is important. …

Funny enough that the issues to do with foreign policy, I find more of a problem back in the West than I do when I'm out there, because out there they kind of view this differently. They may, you know if you take Iraq, they may say, well, we disagree strongly with Iraq, but they're far more likely to say we disagree strongly with Iraq not because we thought Saddam should be there but because we're more worried about Iran and wasn't he a break on Iran and removing him isn't that a -- that's the debate.

I think the idea of being someone with faith who engages with them and is prepared to engage with them on the basis of respect for their faith is actually a very important part of what they're trying to do out there to say to their own people, this is a world we can exist in. And that's why, I mean personally I think the whole inter-faith business hasn't been given nearly the prominence and importance that it needs because when you're out in the Middle East and seeing these different countries -- if you're there in Jerusalem, the intensely increased religiosity is one of the major questions pushing people apart. So if you take the resolution, for example, of the issue of Jerusalem itself, what happens to Jerusalem, I mean, I think it's just bizarre to say that's got nothing to do with religion.

So one of the things we're trying to do there is to get the rabbis and the imams, the Christian leaders, to try and get some common position on Jerusalem as a city of worship. And I think that's an important part of this whole business.

Newton: In that sense do you think you are viewed more credibly as someone who has made this profession of faith because you can have that conversation?

Blair: Well I think in the faith space, as it were, that people would prefer to deal with someone of faith than not, I mean, I think in that way.

Newton: Even if it's not their faith.

Blair: Yeah, even if it's not their faith because, you see -- the other argument that they're met with in a lot of these societies is that our religion is the only way we keep hold of our identity, and that the alternative to our religion is simply a sort of secularism that is imported from elsewhere; whereas I think if they're being talked to by people of faith, albeit a different faith, then it's a conversation that takes place in a slightly different context.

Lauter: But there is a suspicion, isn't there, among a lot of people in the Muslim world that when Christians and Jews talk about interfaith dialogue that the subtext is we're OK, you change.

Blair: Well that of course is one reason why, in the Israel-Palestine context, it's important that people understand that's not what we're saying. I find out there in the world of Islam they know that of course there are -- if you take the actions of some of the settlers, the Israeli settlers in Palestine -- you can see religious extremism there, there's religious extremism obviously in the Christian faith too. But I find most people out there are aware of the fact there is a specific and very clear and very challenging situation in the world of Islam, and they know that in the end they've got to resolve it. But a platform of dialogue between people of different faith, many of them find helpful in trying to say within their own faith community, we're not disrespected and we're not prevented from having our proper place, people actually want to exist with us.

Just a few weeks ago … I was opening a new baptism site on the river Jordan, on the Jordan side. What the king of Jordan has done just recently, he's given authority for the Christian churches to develop baptism sites along the banks of the river Jordan. So when you go down to the banks of the river Jordan, it's really a bizarre thing. You've got the very old, very early church site where … there's the thought that that was where Jesus was baptized; you've got this archaeological site. But then along the banks on either side of it, you've got your Greek Orthodox church and your Russian Orthodox church and your Catholic church that's been built, and the evangelical center, and you see all these churches. …

In the end, the question is in the era of globalization that pushes people together, does religion pull them apart? That's the question, and so religious faith, which is obviously a huge galvanizer and motivator, can it as it were become a part of this process in harmony with it, where people coexist peacefully, as they no doubt do here in Los Angeles and as they do in London now, which is a huge multicultural, multi-faith city? Or do they end up saying, this is my badge of identity and opposition to you, and we're in a fight?

So that's why I think that cultural dimension of this whole business is really important. …

Miller: Are there any other lessons, concrete lessons beside the Mitchell Principles of the Northern Ireland process that Mitchell can apply?

Blair: Yeah, I think there are lots of lessons actually, although you've got to be careful: People sometimes don't like to be told that their situation is like another and so on. But yeah, there are for sure. The single most important is work at it the whole time within a framework that is agreed until it's done. People forget that this was 10 years of stopping, starting, setbacks, hurdles obstacles, that there was just a determination within a shared vision to keep going. And that's what we've got to do, and that's why it's so important that the administration has started from the beginning, because that gives us time. I mean, there will be all sorts of difficult times ahead even if we get this thing going. But I think the one thing that is clear is that there will be a concerted attempt from the beginning of the administration, and that's got to be good.

Miller: And how important do you think it is -- or possible -- to get this Israeli government to freeze settlement construction?

Blair: That's a big question, really, but I do think it's of big importance also for the process.

Miller: How do you do that? How can you?

Blair: Well that's part of the discussion that's going on with the Israeli government now. The problem for the Palestinians is, and again, I emphasize what a small space this, is that the restrictions that operate within the Palestinian area on the West Bank -- you know, people for example will object very strongly to the fence or wall, probably as much to its root as to its existence. But in a way for the Palestinians … the biggest problem they have are the restrictions actually right in the heart of their territory. And some of these restrictions, I mean many of them relate to settlements rather than to the protection of Israel proper. So that's why if they are expanded, and particularly if they are expanded in certain areas, they do change the realities in a way that at a certain point makes it hard to describe a Palestinian state in viable terms.

Miller: Aren't we already at that point? I mean, look at -- what Palestinian state? It's a series of little cantons.

Blair: If I had a map here I would take you through it. … During the course of the Annapolis process, they did get to a far clearer understanding of what the residual issues were. And on territory, as negotiators on both sides will tell you, and I'm not saying there wasn't still a gap, but it was a lesser gap than I think many people realize. … But if you look at a map, there are certain settlements that are very problematic; that is true. But as we stand here and now, the territorial issue is capable of solution, in my judgment. I mean, you would need some land swaps to make it happen, and the East Jerusalem question is very difficult, but they're not unresovable.

One of the problems is that the negotiation that happened, happened at the end of an American administration and then was disrupted by effectively the paralysis of the Israeli situation. But if you look at what then-Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert was prepared to accept by the end of it, you couldn't say that wasn't a basis for discussion.

Newton: Are you still in touch with President Bush?

Blair: From time to time, yeah. I find the problem I have right now is that I'm sort of constantly on the road, really, so one way or another, but yeah, no, sure.

Newton: How do you think he's treated with regard to the Bush administration?

Blair: I think it will depend very much on how events in Iraq and Afghanistan turn out and also how people look back on the whole development of this period of history, and how they fit these different issues into that. I kind of gave up a long time ago wondering how people judge these things. I mean they'll judge them how they judge them in the end; there's no point in me speculating one way or another.

The problem is this is, we live in an era of very low predictability -- that's my judgment on politics at the moment -- both in the economy and in security. These are difficult, difficult questions.

Miller: A lot was made of your relationship with President Bush. In retrospect, how important is the personal relationship between the leaders of these countries versus the strategic interests or allied interests?

Blair: I think they're really important; I mean, they're as important as the relationship in your business between the leading people at the top of the paper. If it's a good relationship things are easier to do; if it's a bad one, it isn't.

Miller: Say no more.


Blair: This is a truth that is there, no matter what professional business you're in. Of course the strategic interests are very important, the alliance between the U.S. and the U.K. is absolutely critical, but the personal relationships matter, and you need to have a personal relationship that's based on trust and based on frankness and openness. … I had close relationships with both President Clinton and President Bush. I know that Gordon Brown has a very good relationship with President Obama. It's in our interest to do that, but the personal side of things -- yeah, of course it's always important, really important, particularly in an uncertain world.

The decisions of leadership today are -- I mean, of course they've always been momentous -- but they're tough challenges. And I think the toughest thing in a way for the new president is that these challenges have just come. They're on his plate now, and the next year, or the next even few months is when the decisions … have to be taken.

I remember when I came in in 1997, and in one way we were quite fortunate in that although there were lots of, I mean there are always lots of issues that are going on, you've got a bit of time to get your feet under the table and work it all out and try and try and get your bearings as it were because political leaders are human beings. … I think the toughest thing for [Obama] is that the economy, security, climate change, they're 2009 decisions, all of them, and they're difficult, really difficult.