Quartet envoy Tony Blair
Quartet envoy Tony Blair. Photo by AP / Archive
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Special envoy of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators, Tony Blair, said Monday that he was optimistic about the prospects for peace in the region despite the recent instability.

Speaking at the International Conference on Economic Regional Cooperation in Tel Aviv, where he was being honored as an expression of Israel’s appreciation for his efforts toward Middle East peace, the former British prime minister said it was imperative for the parties involved to find a "framework for negotiations that will give both sides the sense that they are credible."

When asked whether he was still optimistic about the chances of a successful peace deal, Blair responded affirmatively.

"You have to step back and take a look at the big picture," he told the hundreds of world leaders, government officials and businessmen gathered in Tel Aviv for the conference. "It is not in anyone's interest to carry on in conflict, when together in peace we can create so much for Israelis and Palestinians."

"I believe in the rationality of human beings, even in this region, and I think it will prevail," said Blair.
 
He emphasized his belief that economic stability was an imperative part of achieving political stability. "Our work is based on the belief that economic progress helps the politics work - it is not a substitute," he said. "And when the politics is stuck, this is a way to move forward.

The conference, hosted by Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, was aimed at boosting Israel’s cooperation with the Palestinians and other members of the Arab world.

In addition to Blair, speakers at the conference included Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, President Shimon Peres, MK Tzipi Livni and Daniel Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was also supposed to address the conference, but canceled at the last minute.

In his address to the conference, Fischer warned that the consequences of not having trade relations with Turkey would be expensive for Israel.

Fisher emphasized that the Turkish economy far surpasses Israel's and is growing extremely fast.

"[The] Turkish economy is growing at an exceptional rate," said Fischer. "They have great entrepreneurs and a European trained labor force. Turkey will be a big market in the region and a major exporter. The consequences of not having trading relations with Turkey will be expensive."

Fischer's remarks came just days after Ankara launched a series of penalizing measures against Israel over its refusal to apologize for its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in 2010.

"Inter-regional trade in the Middle East is small, and it will stay small even if it opens up," said Fischer. "Our intetregional trade does not amount to very much at the moment, but it would be of benefit if it grew."

On the other hand, Fischer said, the Palestinian economy is very small compared to the Israeli economy - approximately $10 billion compared to Israel $220 billion.

"This is one way of saying that what happens in the Palestinian economy is not important for Israel," said Fischer, "but it is also another way of saying that what happens in Israel is important for the Palestinian economy."

"Integration of the two economies is possible, as is has been in the past," added the central bank chief. "There is no reason why the Palestinian economy cannot grow at the rates it did a few years ago, at around 15% a year."

"If it were freed up it could grow again. This would have a massive effect on relations between the two economies," he said, but added: "I don't believe that better economic relations are a substitute for political developments. It is not true that you can compensate a people for a lack of political independence… but economic growth is important for the stability of a relationship."

Trade cannot be done without peace, Fischer emphasized. "Warm peace, like we had with Egypt, is important in building economic relations," he said.

In his address to the conference,  Peres emphasized the importance of building up Israel’s economic ties with its neighbors, saying that Israel must serve as an example in the region, to fight poverty and improve relations with its neighbors.

“Today relations are more important than borders,” Peres said at the International Conference for Regional Cooperation in Tel Aviv, adding that “borders do not stop pollution or missiles, what we need is cooperation.”

The president also related to the Palestinians' plan to gain statehood recognition at the United Nations later this month, stressing that cooperation was an inherent vehicle for negotiations.

“The United Nations must answer two questions,” Peres said, “the question of the independence of a Palestinian state, and the question of Israeli security. If you cannot provide us with security, how can we have a Palestinian state?” Peres asked.

Israel does not need all the answers to these questions, Peres said, but stressed that “there must be enough answers to open up the door to negotiations.”

Peres concluded by stressing the importance of the younger generation and their hand in the future of Israel, particularly in light of the nationwide social protests. “I don’t feel that we are at a loss," he said. "This is a quest and this is a beginning.”

He called on the government to “let the younger generation take their future in their own hands to bring about peace,” adding “we must do it gradually, and with vision.”

Shalom opened the conference on Monday morning by emphasizing that stability in the Middle East depends on economic stability, via regional cooperation. "We need to do everything we can in order to empower moderates in the region," he said.