After All This Time Working Toward Peace, I'm Still an Optimist

Peace is still in the interests of both peoples, still supported by both peoples, still wished for by both peoples. But a new approach is required.

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At visit to UN-run school in Gaza City, Tony Blair on February 15, 2015, speaks with Palestinians who had lost their homes in 2014 war with Israel.
At visit to UN-run school in Gaza City, Tony Blair on February 15, 2015, speaks with Palestinians who had lost their homes in 2014 war with Israel.Credit: Associated Press
Tony Blair

My visit to Israel for the Haaretz conference will be my 147th since leaving office. The first eight years were spent working as an ex officio envoy for the Quartet – the international management group comprising the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. This part-time, unpaid role focused in terms of its mandate on the Palestinian economy, and excluded the political process.

Though I left the position earlier this year, I remain heavily involved in efforts to get beyond the impasse, including through my own initiative for the Middle East, which has a more overtly political ambition.

Through this time and all its travails, I have acquired a deep appreciation of the issues and possibly some degree of understanding.

So here are some conclusions.

The heart of the problem is not an inability to solve the so-called core issues – borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem. The solutions to those are pretty clear to most serious observers and participants. If there were trust, goodwill and a sense of potential partnership between Israelis and Palestinians, these issues, although difficult, could be resolved.

It therefore follows that the issue is, rather, about why these qualities do not presently exist and how to create them.

The reason that a conventional peace process – putting the parties in a room and waiting for an agreement – will not work is that over the years since Oslo, two things have happened. In Israeli public opinion, the conventional peace camp has suffered a series of reverses. The second intifada broke the trust between the peoples. The withdrawal from Gaza, including uprooting settlers – in Israeli eyes – was followed not by peace but by rockets and terrorism. The takeover of Gaza by Hamas made a similar withdrawal from the West Bank all the more difficult. From the Israeli perspective, even if the current Palestinian leadership wanted to deliver peace, it couldn’t. Recent events have reemphasized this perception and weakened the credibility President Mahmoud Abbas had in Israel.

Netanyahu (right) meets with Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

So, in Israel, the whole basis of the notion that a conventional peace process leading to a Palestinian state is the route to security has taken a huge battering.

As for the Palestinians, they have watched as over the years Israel has grown into a successful First World country, admired today globally, including in the emerging powers of China and India, for its remarkable technology achievements. The disparity in income and living standards is now vast. In the West Bank, Palestinians continue to suffer under the occupation, and settlements continue to grow. In Gaza, they’re in a semipermanent state of lockdown. Young Palestinians are frustrated, alienated even, from much of their own politics, and increasingly without hope.

They’re convinced the Israelis no longer want peace or care about it. What has the vibrant Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv got to do with Gaza City 70 kilometers down the coast?

Trust and credibility

Given all this, a conventional “put them in a room together” peace process won’t work. Instead, three things are preconditional to creating trust and credibility.

First, the involvement of the Arab powers in such a process is essential and long overdue. The Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 was a landmark event. Of course it needs revision in the light of events in the region in recent years, but its framework offers a way to negotiate where both Israel and the Palestinians have the confidence that the negotiations are supported by the region as a whole.

A few years ago, this would have been impossible or incredible. Today – when Arab nations face exactly the same threats of extremism either of the Sunni variety or the Shi’ite one promoted by Iran – there is an objective shared interest between Arabs and Israelis. The Palestinian issue is the key which opens this door.

The engagement of the Arab world has to be in helping grip and drive the peace process – not, as has been traditional, responding reactively.

Done in the right way, constructively, this would give Israelis far more confidence in any peace process than one whose weight rested solely on the shoulders of present Palestinian politics.

The second is that life on the ground for Palestinians has to improve radically, and immediately. From around 2007-2010, growth in the West Bank was in double digits. For the last years, it has been stalling. Over the next decade, 100,000 new jobs need to be created every year in the West Bank alone as its young population graduates and joins the workforce. Gaza lacks even the basic infrastructure for electricity, sanitation, clean drinking water and housing. It is true that Israel is allowing in over 700 trucks of materials per day. But the private sector is moribund, unemployment a perilous 40 percent, and the ability of Gaza to be connected to the world drastically limited.

There is a virtual consensus on what needs to happen to improve daily life – in Gaza and the West Bank. These are not things with security implications. In fact, improving Palestinians’ living conditions would serve Israel’s security. We need to agree them and do them.

Without significant and real change in the way Palestinians live, there is no hope for a political process.

Third, there will be no lasting peace without Palestinian reconciliation and unity on a basis that supports the two-state solution, where Israel is secure and the Palestinian state is viable.

Palestinian politics has to offer a unified leadership that can bring about the decisions necessary for statehood. At present, the division and therefore paralysis in Palestinian politics means there is not a plausible strategy for the Palestinians to achieve statehood.

None of this absolves Israeli politics of the responsibility to articulate why a binational state is a disaster and why the building of a Palestinian state is a strategic interest of the Israelis.

But we have a far better chance of achieving this outcome if what happens on the ground stimulates and does not undermine the credibility of peace.

Finally, and perhaps unbelievably, I remain an optimist. Peace is still in the interest of both peoples, still supported by both peoples, still wished for by both peoples. But it requires a new approach to translate these hopes into reality.

The writer served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, and as Quartet representative from 2007 to June 2015.