A pleasant surprise awaited Tony Blair, the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East, who returned to Jerusalem for the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush. His small staff, which has taken over the south wing of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, celebrated a major success this week, maybe the biggest since the office's inauguration last June: The sewage project in Beit Lahia is starting to move forward. If all goes as planned, and Israel allows the concrete and equipment to be brought in, the first stage will be completed this March.
A document the Blair team drew up at the beginning of last November said the sewage project in the northern Gaza Strip has the highest priority among the tasks that will have an immediate impact. Last March, a flood caused by the collapse of a wall in a small oxidation pool killed three people and destroyed 140 homes in Beit Lahia.
"If the rehabilitation work is not completed quickly," the detailed 35-page work plan states, "there is a risk of a breach of the main sewage lake - with much more devastating consequences." The World Bank offered to underwrite the project four years ago. "The project by the World Bank to upgrade the plant is long overdue," the document says.
This is a story about another world-renowned statesman whose good intentions are being shattered in collisions with barriers - psychological barriers and barriers of suspicion, mistrust and bureaucracy that take shape on the ground as hundreds of checkpoints.
"Without facilitation of movement, there will be no substantive change in the situation," a senior member of Blair's staff says, endorsing the assessment by the Palestinians as well as international and Israeli aid organizations. "A pity for the donor states to waste billions."
Someone has calculated that dividing the $7 billion promised to the Palestinians in the Paris conference by 2.3 million people comes to $3,000 per capita, or $15,000 for an average family. Hamas is inciting the masses of unemployed to ask Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) where the money is, and is also supplying the answer: "It's going to the corrupt officials in Fatah who drive around in Mercedes cars and dine in fancy restaurants."
In the absence of work, raw materials and credible transportation facilities, all the Palestinian Authority can do is dole out salaries to people so they will sit at home and not fall into the arms of Hamas. The problem of the chief cashier - Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad - is that the money from the donors (which in any event exists only on paper) is not earmarked for expenses of this type. He is starting the new fiscal year with $300 million in the red.
The remarks by the senior member of the Blair team sound like a broken record of discussions with James Wolfensohn, who as president of the World Bank was one of the strongest people on the planet. He was then appointed Quartet envoy: He came, saw, was stung and disappeared. "We examined carefully what Wolfensohn succeeded in doing and what he was unable to do," the senior figure said.
"We understand Israel's security problems, but that understanding unfortunately changes nothing. If the goods don't reach the port on time, there is no point establishing factories and creating industrial zones." Wolfensohn learned that it makes no difference what an Israeli prime minister promises; what's important is what Amos Gilad, the defense minister's envoy, does in the Palestinian channel.
The aid organizations hoped that Blair's close relations with Defense Minister Ehud Barak would help them break down a few barriers. They discovered that Barak is looking ahead to the next race for prime minister. From his point of view, the support of the former prime minister and leader of the British Labour Party for the leader of the Israeli Labor Party in his battle against the leader of the conservatives, Benjamin Netanyahu, belongs to the remote past. The senior member of the Blair team did not know how to interpret the document Barak released during a visit to the West Bank in which the current checkpoint policy, more or less, is slated to stay in place for the foreseeable future.
A senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry had no trouble interpreting Barak's tough approach. In his view, Barak believes that Fatah is a lost cause. Barak has adopted the view of Amos Gilad and Military Intelligence that the fall of the West Bank to Hamas and the more extreme organizations is only a matter of time. If it were up to them and the head of the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would add more checkpoints in the West Bank.
Still, you have to do something. To demonstrate goodwill, a few weeks ago Barak accepted an invitation to appear alongside Blair and Fayyad at a ceremony launching a series of new projects. A comparison of the projects presented at the well-publicized meeting with a document presented to the former defense minister, Amir Peretz, shows that these are recycled plans. The document states: "Within the framework of renewing the dialogue with Abu Mazen and the efforts to strengthen and stabilize his control, the Defense Ministry has decided to advance regional initiatives in a local dialogue and multilaterally, with the support of donor states."
The paper mentions, among other projects, the Turkish initiative (the Ankara Initiative) to develop an industrial zone in the northern Gaza Strip (formerly the Erez Industrial Zone). This project is intended to create 10,000 jobs for Palestinians within five years, in cooperation with Israel, and to exploit existing infrastructure to market the merchandise. There is also an Italian-German initiative (Euromid Bridge) to develop a cargo-handling and international trade zone in the Jenin area, from which goods will be transported to Arab states via the Jordan transit points.
A Japanese initiative (Corridor for Peace and Prosperity) calls for the development of an industrial zone to process agricultural produce from the territories and market it via the Allenby crossing (Hussein Bridge). No progress was recorded in the Japanese project, and Barak canceled a decision by Peretz to open Damia Bridge in the northern Jordan Rift Valley as a parallel to the Allenby crossing.
What remains of all this? The title "Quick Impact" was removed from the Blair team's work plan, and it is now called just "Economic Projects." Blair has cut down his visits to Jerusalem. He is making do with short stays: a week here, three weeks away. Since becoming the envoy some six months ago, Blair has spent barely six weeks in the offices and residential wing that were leased in the expensive hotel.
The United Nations Development Program and the Norwegian government are paying $1.3 million a year to house fewer than a dozen advisers and aides. The Blair delegation says that so far no complaints have been received from the donors. The Internet site http://un-truth.com, which has a copy of the lease, says the leased rooms have been used by various people, "including most notably a group of female volleyball players."
A more comfortable occupation
The greatest success the Blair team is crediting itself with is the opening of the special crossing to Bethlehem for Christian pilgrims at Christmas. The new member of the Catholic Church is very proud of this (temporary) accomplishment. A PA official familiar with the issue says the large Muslim community takes a dim view of Blair's protektsia for the Christian population. He hopes the Christian minority will not pay the price in the end.
The big gainers from all this, he adds, are the Israeli hotels and tour guides. The travel agencies were delighted to add Bethlehem to the tour package; the tourists spent three or four hours in and around the Church of the Nativity and then retuned to their hotels in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. "This is part of the approach that says the occupation has to be made a bit more comfortable," the man says. "This is not the way to turn the economy into a lever for building an independent state."
The director of a large East Jerusalem-based British organization believes in Blair's power to change the situation. Regrettably, he says, it appears that rehabilitating the Palestinian economy is too small a project for the retired British leader. "Blair is like a movie star," the director says with a sad smile. "One moment he is smiling at the cameras and the next moment he's gone." So far not even the name of Israel's president has helped the top officials at the Peres Center for Peace win an invitation for a get-acquainted meeting with Blair, even though they possess expertise on promoting projects in the territories.
Blair's bureau chief Nick Banner, who arrived with the former prime minister from London and is accompanying him on his global travels, refers the courtiers to the aides. The number-two man on the team, Don Bandler, is a dry American diplomat in the waning stage of his career. The aid organizations miss Wolfensohn, who was not ashamed to go to the Erez crossing to meet with officials of the Port Authority and clash with the manager of the terminal.
One of the directors of an Israeli research institute, which maintains working relations with the Blair team, remains unfazed by the grumbling. He says the development plans are only a cover for Blair's real activities. He has not come here to argue with Amos Gilad about evacuating settler outposts or to talk with the Turks about an industrial zone. The man who achieved peace in Northern Ireland and can call the president of the United States in the middle of the night would not have gotten involved in this adventure to read in the newspapers about the negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas over the core issues.
Blair is Bush's man in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
If so, then to say that "the importance of the meeting between Bush and Blair in Jerusalem lies in the very fact that it took place" is no cliche.