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 Sunday by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an interview with Haaretz. The British leader, who just recently 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.
How can Israel fend off the erosion of its legitimacy, the proposed indictments of Israeli officers... academic boycott in Europe and in UK in particular?The two things are: To give people a real sense of strategic clarity about the threat that we face, and secondly to be the people who are striving to revive the Palestinian process. We may not succeed, but we should always strive.
With the recent arrests of suspected terrorists in the UK. These are people who grew up in the UK, in the welfare state, with no experience of any form of oppression or occupation. Did you ask yourselves what went wrong, what you did wrong?Well, they become like that. It's not necessarily what have we done wrong, because part of the problem of what you have in Western opinion is that Western opinion always wants to believe that it's our fault and these people want to have a sort of, you know, grievance culture that they visit upon us and say it's our fault. And so we have a young British- born man of Pakistani origin sitting in front of a television screen saying I will go and kill innocent people because of the oppression of Muslims, when he has been brought up in a country that has given him complete religious freedom and full democratic rights and actually a very good job and standard of living. Now, that warped mind has grown out of a global movement based on a perversion of Islam which we have to confront, and we have to confront it globally.
And as I said recently in my L.A. speech, the first way to win a battle is to realize you're in a battle. That's part of the trouble: We don't yet really understand this is a global movement and it requires a global strategy to beat it.
One other point - you can't beat it simply by security or military means. This is an ideological battle. It's got to be taken out to the enemy. And that's why I say it's important for us always to be the ones who have got a political strategy running alongside the military strategy. We should never, ever, whatever the technical difficulties, let the political strategy fall away.
We in our paper see your political difficulties and the battle of ideology as very closely linked. We have witnessed with a certain amount of sorrow your inability to inculcate this awareness in your own public opinion and among Western European opinion.Yeah, but you know in the end sometimes it takes people a long time to wake up. And sometimes these struggles go over a whole generation, almost. It's less important what my position is - but as you say rightly, I expect it indicates that we've got a big job to do.
But I think that underneath opinion is changing. On the surface I agree at the moment, no, it isn't. But underneath people are beginning to see it change. Now my own view is that if we were able to revive the Palestinian process that would be a huge part of persuading opinion that the one issue where even quite moderate Muslims just feel frustration and anger - that we were dealing with it now.
...I know from the Israeli point of view how frustrating it is to be told, you know, this is an issue that in the interest of the world has got to be solved... and you worry in Israel that maybe our interests get sacrificed in the course of finding a solution. I hope that I've done enough to prove that I will never sacrifice the security of Israel in that way. But I do genuinely believe that our job has got to be to build that alliance of moderation and empower the moderate Muslims and Arab voices.
We are concerned that even you cannot evoke from the Palestinian side - now that the Hamas has won power and Abu Mazen is merely a figurehead, having lost the election to them - even you can't evoke a negotiating partner, just when an Israeli government, however bruised and battered, is ready to relinquish the vast bulk of the territories...That's absolutely right and I understand that. One of the things I've been discussing here - because this has been a very strong sentiment of mine for a long time - is that what should have happened on disengagement from Gaza is this: Everyone should have come into Gaza, built a strong institutional capability and governing capacity, with the economic reconstruction, and then say, 'right - the disengagement from Gaza is the beginning, now let's move to the next stage.'
I'm sure that is what should have happened. And it didn't. And the fact that it didn't means that there is in my view a need for the international community to support in a far stronger and more effective way capacity on the Palestinian side.
Otherwise there are two alternatives: What happens is that either we try to reinvigorate the process but it never really happens... you agree to documents but they're never really operationalized; or alternatively what happens is that - and I think this is a reason why it is very much in the strategic interests of Israel to try to make progress - is that you can end up with a sort of semi-state on the Palestinian state, full of militias and gangs and trouble.
But the Hamas government rejects the conditions of the Quartet, despite the economic and diplomatic boycott and military pressure?Yes, well I think there is a lot of pressure coming now from the Palestinian people. This refusal to accept at least the basis of the Quartet principles is holding back the Palestinian people. And after all, how can we possibly negotiate with a government about a two-state solution if they don't accept the existence of the other state?
Is it pie-in-the-sky to see the beefed-up UNIFIL as something of a precedent for involvement in the Palestinian question later?Only in this way: Not that you'd replicate that type of force or anything like that, but I think that it does indicate that sometimes what happens is not that moderates don't want to do the right thing - but that they don't have the capacity to do it. I am quite sure that Prime Minister Siniora never wanted a situation where Resolution 1559 was never implemented. He wasn't able to do it. Interestingly, with Resolution 1701 he may be able to do it. I think in the same way we can transfer the analogy to this extent: That's why you need real international support on the Palestinian side. I think that is in the interest of the Palestinians and of the Israelis as well. Obviously these are things we'll now discuss, because I think you'll find now a great churn of activity but we need to make sure that out of it comes something that is applicable.
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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