Western leaders are increasingly aware of the global nature of the struggle against Islamic extremism led by Iran, but within Western public opinion "there is a big battle to be won."
This somber assessment was offered here yesterday by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an interview with Haarettz. The British leader, who last week announced his intention to step down within a year, acknowledged that his own domestic political difficulties were closely tied with this "ideological battle" for British and Western hearts and minds.
After a day of prodding Israeli and Palestinian leaders to get back on the negotiating track, the prime minister treated his interviewers to some flashes of the old Blair magic, interspersed with philosophical, almost wistful reflections on the vicissitudes of international affairs and political fortunes.
Did you find Prime Minister Olmert different from when you met him last (in June)?
"Obviously it's been a very traumatic, difficult time. When you lead a country through a crisis like that, it's a massive challenge. I found him extraordinarily focused and energetic and determined."
Did you give him any political advice?
"He was more likely to be giving me political advice! What I did say was this ... The important thing is for Israel to be always the country that is striving for peace but is sometimes forced into war. And that's why it's important that we got the Resolution 1701, because that is a political framework within which the issues to do with Lebanon can be dealt with. And if we can, we should invigorate the peace process with the Palestinians."
Olmert has forgone the West Bank disengagement ...
"The important thing is to try and get a negotiated agreement because that, in the end, is the only way forward. Now, in Israel people will be very skeptical, not to say cynical, as to whether it is possible at all. There is one major strategic question that has changed in the whole of the international community. People everywhere now see this global movement of extremism, they see Iran putting itself at the head of it, and there is a huge strategic interest that includes America, Europe, Israel and any Arab and Muslim countries that want a modern future - there is a huge strategic interest in making sure that that extremism doesn't succeed."
Did the Lebanon war sharpen this consciousness?
"Yes, I think it did, and though obviously, for obvious reasons because many innocent people died - many innocent Israelis, many innocent Lebanese - and the destruction of so much in Lebanon is terrible, of course. And so while the conflict was going on, it was very difficult for people to think in terms of anything other than stopping the conflict. But I think that there emerged from that a clearer notion of how this came about and how Iran and, to an extent, Syria are pulling the strings and ensuring that there is such conflict. And so I think there has been that greater clarity."
Greater clarity in your mind. But what makes you think in the minds of other European leaders?
"Because I think amongst the leaders in Europe, I think it is clear. Amongst the people in Europe and Western opinion, there is a big battle to be won. I mean, I'm being just honest about this. And I think there is a desire not to face the fact that we are fighting a global struggle. There are all sorts of issues to do with America and whether people want to be associated with America. And I think there is sometimes a naivete about organizations like Hezbollah and the activities of Iran. I'm just being frank. I think there is a battle, and it is important that we take our case out and win that battle.
"And one part of winning the battle is making the case as to why Israel is entitled to its security and why it's important to revitalize the Palestinian process."
Regarding Iran, do you agree with the comparisons to the 1930s that we often read about?
"When you have the president of a country as powerful as Iran say those things, it may be very foolish of us to assume he doesn't mean them. And when he's also trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, then I think the warning signs are pretty clear ... I think for a president of a country to say they want to wipe another country off the face of the earth and at the same time he's trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capability - if we don't get worried about that, future historians will raise a few questions about us and about our judgment.
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