It's All About Women

Kent, England, early November. Cherie Blair's turn had come.

Kent, England, early November. Cherie Blair's turn had come. For three days, the Edenbridge Bonfire Society had been working on the construction of her effigy. Every year, as part of its Guy Fawkes Carnival, the group's members invest immeasurable thought into choosing the latest victim for the pyre. For a time, the name of Heather Mills, the much-loathed, estranged wife of Paul McCartney, was under consideration, but it wasn't felt that she would draw enough fire. Instead, when the die was cast, it turned up the name of the woman who for the past decade, and until very recently, was England's first lady. Her figure, a steel frame, eight meters high, stuffed with bits of paper and covered with sheets of combustible material, was burned finally, to the cheers of the revelers at the carnival.

Jerusalem, American Colony Hotel, this past Monday. If the bonfire in Kent had symbolized some kind of hell, the veteran East Jerusalem hotel is undoubtedly a kind of Garden of Eden. It's not without reason that the hostelry was chosen as the base camp for Tony Blair, the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East. An entire floor has been set aside for the ongoing activities of the international team. "They spend a million dollars a year here," a foreign journalist whispered, in the hotel's stylish lobby.

By midday, the enchanting patio was filled with people. Sparrows flitted from an olive tree to an orange tree, and from there to the small stone fountain in the center of the patio. In one corner sat Mordechai Vanunu by himself, reading the International Herald Tribune, as the muezzin of a mosque a few meters from the hotel began his call to prayer.

Inside everything has already been prepared for Christmas. A Christmas tree stands next to the fireplace in one of the arched halls, and decorations have been hung along the walls and around the stone arches. Cherie Blair sat there, smiling cheerfully, exuding good humor and joie de vivre, with a strong desire to assist and contribute her part to the region in which "Tony" has decided to settle (at least partially) and to invest his efforts. Direct, and so different from her accepted image and the scandals that surrounded her, Cherie - so it seems to her interlocutor - is not a witch at all but rather some kind of fairy.

Women and philanthropy

This witch-fairy was considered one of the strongest prime minister's wives in the Western world, someone whose influence on the personality, and the ideological and political, as well as spiritual, worlds of her husband was decisive. But Cherie Blair, 53, a leading human-rights lawyer and mother of four, who never interrupted her professional career, does not intend to step into Tony's shoes. Not even as a journalistic-intellectual exercise. She also does not have even one bit of public advice to give him.

"I am certainly not going to tell my husband what to do. Twenty-seven-and-a-half years of marriage taught me that you have to be a lot more subtle than that," she tells Haaretz in an interview.

If we were to sum up her visit this week to Israel and the territories, it would focus on two words: "philanthropy," and "women."

In Ramallah, Cherie Blair addressed more than 100 Palestinian businesswomen, whom she encouraged to play a larger role in the local economy. She also called on the international community to invest more in the women of the region. "I have learned a lot about how women can be important transformers of their society. One of the most important ways to realize women's rights is to give them economic independence, and that is why I am particularly interested myself in encouraging women's participation in the workforce, in business in particular, and to make sure that the barriers that hold them back are removed."

Her words sound like an echo of those of her husband, who recently declared that the physical roadblocks in the West Bank are the greatest obstacle to development of the Palestinian economy. When she is asked about this, Cherie - with the assistance of her spokeswoman, who intervenes every time she fears that her charge is about to "slide into politics" - changes the direction of the discussion to one more to her liking: "When you look at who suffers the most from wars, from corruption and mismanagement, it's women and children. But if you look at what is driving the world economy, who is making the biggest contribution, it is not actually China or India, but again - women: Women who are entering the workforce, women who are setting up their own businesses. As I have gone around the world during these last 10 years, I have met a lot of very successful businesswomen, in America, in the U.K., in Europe and in Israel too. I am looking for ways to harness their knowledge and expertise in such a way that they can help women who are like them, in developing countries." "Developing countries" is without a doubt a code for the Palestinian state-in-the-making. But Cherie Blair's philanthropic activities do not stop at Palestine. She arrived in the area under the aegis of the Portland Trust - a private foundation set up in Britain in 2003 by Sir Ronald Cohen, a wealthy Jew of Egyptian origin - whose aim is to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinains via economic projects. She also visited, within this framework, the Western Galilee College, in Acre - "a fascinating place, the most powerful thing I'm taking back from my visit here" - 72 percent of whose students are women, and 60 percent of the total student body Jewish, with the remainder Muslims, Druze and Christians. This heterogeneous composition, she feels, makes the school a microcosm that can serve as a symbol and model, and which deserves fitting funding. The college has plans to establish a school of business administration, which will help graduates of the college to hone their skills and join the workforce. Blair is already involved in helping to set up the school, working to recruit Israeli businesswomen to assist in fundraising, academic planning and even agreeing to serve as mentors to future students.

Bombs and damage

In the lobby of the American Colony, waiting for their turn with Cherie Blair, sit the editor of the Jerusalem-based daily Al Quds, Dr. Marwan Abu Zalaf, and a reporter for the newspaper, Mohammed Abu Khdier, who complain about their situation. For the past four days, the Israeli army has not allowed their newspaper to enter the Gaza Strip. Every morning, when the paper's driver arrives at the Erez checkpoint, he is told to go back to where he came from.

"They are playing games with us," Abu Zalaf says. "We are worried that this is not a temporary situation, that the Israelis want to seal off Gaza completely."

"There are 8,000 copies that get thrown into the garbage every day," moans Abu Khdier. The experience of another two papers, Al Ayyam and Al-Hayat al-Jadida, is similar.

The last time that Cherie Blair made public remarks about the plight of the Palestinians, it ended badly. That was in June 2002, a few hours after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which 19 Israelis were killed. "The Palestinian youth have no choice but to blow themselves up," the supporter of human rights told a meeting of heads of a Palestinian charity organization. Her subsequent apology and the fact that the following summer she hosted the people who had been wounded in the 2001 Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing in Jerusalem, did not manage to erase the remark from people's memories.

Two years later, in September 2005, Blair said, at a lawyers conference in London, that when there is a case of "a ticking bomb," society's right to defend itself takes precedence over the absolute protection of human rights. Referring to the debate then taking place in her country regarding judges' interpretation of the legislation about terror, she added that civil rights "are too serious a matter to leave in the hands of judges alone." She added that judges "are not priests, and don't have divine guidance." Speaking to Ze'ev Segal, the legal analyst of Haaretz, at the conference, Blair said she supported the idea of the High Court of Justice in Israel having judicial review with regard to security matters. She pointed with approval to the high court's rulings on the separation fence, in which it has several times ordered the Defense Ministry to reroute the barrier so as to balance residents' rights with security concerns.

Surprisingly, now that she no longer resides at 10 Downing St., Blair's responses are more cautious and minimalistic. Some of them are even evasive. She is not following the ongoing conflict in Israel between the justice minister and the Supreme Court president, over the limits of the Court's powers, but takes the opportunity to declare that "I am very much an admirer of the jurisprudence of the Israeli Supreme Court."

She ignores a question, in which she is asked if the fact that suicide bombings have stopped means that Palestinian youths no longer have a need to sacrifice themselves. A comparison between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the situation in Northern Ireland is apt in her eyes, because in both cases, she sees the necessity for building faith between different communities, and in both cases, "We cannot empower those who don't want peace, and give them the ability to dictate the agenda."

Does she have sympathy for those in Britain who see Israel as the source of all evil in the Middle East? Can the boycott of Israeli goods be justified, the initiatives to impose an academic boycott, the condemnations of Israel as an "apartheid regime," not to mention the debate about Israel's right to exist as an independent state?

Blair's vigilant spokeswoman immediately interjects: "We are not here to answer political questions." Blair nevertheless wants to declare that, "I consider myself a friend of Israel and also a friend of the Palestinian people, and I know that my husband feels the same way." Both of them, she explains, believe in "the way of dialogue and understanding, not in driving people apart."

Then, she immediately asks, with a smile, "Wouldn't you like to ask me about women?"

The political arena is "Tony's," and the limelight must remain his.

Hillary, Cecilia and me

In contrast to Cherie Blair, her predecessors at 10 Downing St. made sure to keep a low profile, making do with secondary, behind-the-scenes roles. In 2003, after the exposure of her dubious ties with an Australian con man, who helped her to buy two apartments cheaply in Bristol - an affair that rocked Britain, and which was referred to as "Cheriegate" - Blair decided to devote her energies to writing a book about the prime ministers' partners of previous generations. (This fall, it was announced that Cherie is working on her Downing Street memoirs, which will be published by Little, Brown late next year.) Violet Attlee, for instance, the wife of Clement (Labour PM, 1945-51), was actually a supporter of the rival Conservative party, and that the only thing she agreed to do for her husband's cause was to drive him from time to time to cabinet meetings. Mary Wilson, Harold's wife, had reservations about political life and refused to live at 10 Downing St. during his second term of office (1974-76). While Sir Denis Thatcher always supported his wife, Margaret, he too took pains not to stand out during her terms in office (1979-1990).

Cherie Blair was the first wife of a British prime minister to continue to maintain a full professional career, and also the only one, during the past 152 years, who brought a baby into the world - and into 10 Downing - during her husband's term of office.

Blair is a charismatic lawyer, a strong family woman who has been dogged by scandals, and a woman who on the one hand guarded her privacy zealously and on the other hand loved the limelight. If this makes her sound a bit like Hillary Clinton, it's a comparison that delights Cherie Blair: "I am a huge admirer of Hillary Clinton. I have known her for many years now. I would love to see Hillary as president of the United States, but for myself, I see my role through my legal career and through my philanthropic work. My husband reached the top in the political sphere; I dont need to try and compete with him in that. There are plenty of things that I could still do and I intend to do them."

As someone who suffered from those who tried to pry into her personal life, she would not think of doing the same with the personal life of another woman, and so refuses to comment on the saga of Cecilia Sarkozy, who apparently preferred her personal freedom to the gilded cage of Paris' Elysee Palace. Blair is, however, prepared to advise Aliza Olmert "to be her own person and find her own way, as I'm sure she will," and at the same time support her husband.

"Doing God"

Now it is an open secret. Tony Blair "does God," to paraphrase remarks made by his former spokesman Alastair Campbell, who in the past refused to respond to the question of his boss's attitude toward religion. Now Campbell has admitted that in fact Blair "does do God in quite a big way." Campbell makes the statement in a documentary TV series, "The Blair Years," which began running on the BBC this week. In it, the former prime minister himself reveals his most closely guarded secret. He acknowledges that religious faith was to him "hugely important" in his decisions as prime minister, including the one to send troops to Iraq in 2003. Blair also explains that he avoided talking about his religious views while in office for fear of being viewed by the electorate as "a nutter."

Cherie, who met Tony when they were students in the 1970s, is considered the one who influenced him to forgo his conservative views and to go over to the social-democratic camp. Now, reports say, Tony Blair is expected under his wife's influence to move from the Anglican church to Catholicism, her faith. Does she identify with the image of her portrayed in the film "The Queen," she is asked. Is she indeed that republican leftist, and at the same time a devout Catholic who "does God?" As she breaks out into prolonged and easy laughter, it is impossible not to recall the scenes in the movie in which the affectations of the monarchy cause her revulsion - in one of them, Cherie sticks a finger into her throat to suggest she's on the verge of vomiting - or the remarks that emerge from her character's mouth in the film, in which she describes the royal family as a "bunch of freeloading, emotionally retarded... nutters."

Blair continues laughing, as she responds: "It was a wonderful film, but it was of course fiction and now that you have met me, you can judge for yourself."

Blair's spokeswoman is quick to intervene: "One should also be fair to the queen," to which Cherie adds, "That's for sure."