|Blair, left, with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian
president, in Ramallah last year [EPA]
On Monday, Tony Blair, the special envoy to the Middle East for the Quartet of the UN, US, EU and Russia, will attend the Paris conference, a follow-on event from the US-hosted Middle East conference in Annapolis.
In an exclusive interview, Blair tells Al Jazeera that in order to bring peace to the region more help is needed to get the Palestinians in a position where they can build the institutions of their own state.
He also argues that the difference from previous peace conferences is that the entire international community, including Israel, now see a two-state solution as a priority.
Al Jazeera: Can you please put us in the picture of your tour in the region – what are you planning to do after Annapolis and before Paris?
Tony Blair: Essentially, the Annapolis conference announced that the Palestinians and Israelis were going to negotiations to resolve the final status issues, in other words to put the peace deal together.
But in order to get a Palestinian state we need to help the Palestinians build the institutions of that state; education and health, economic development, security and governance and so on. So the Paris conference next week is going to be a pledging conference so that the international community can get behind the Palestinians and the reformer development plan that they will present at that conference can support it financially.
We are looking for round about $5.6bn from the international community to support it. And so I am here in the region obviously to ask people to give that commitment to the Palestinians. The European Union and the Americans have made commitments, and my own government back in Britain has, and obviously it’s important that Gulf countries do as well.
Q: However, giving assistance is one thing and whether or not it is reaching all Palestinians is something else… is that not so?
A: Yes, it’s important that we make sure that all the Palestinians benefit from this. So some of this money will go in budgetary support which will go to pay wages, some of it will go to humanitarian support, but a lot of it should also go for development money, because if the Palestinian state is going to be successful, it has to have the capability to run itself properly not just in the West Bank, but in Gaza as well.
Q: But the question is: How will that be done? There is a different reality on the ground. You are talking about assistance with billions of dollars and those living in Gaza don not have clean water to drink, they do not have electricity, they do not have ambulances and their life is really difficult…
A: Well it is… I mean it’s really difficult for people, so the question is: How do we make it better? And in my view we have to work on three things together which [are], first of all, a political deal between Palestinians and Israelis, that’s what Annapolis launched with a timeline, we will seek to reach a final agreement for the first time, in 2008.
Secondly, we need to give the Palestinians the support to develop their countries and the third thing we need is for the facts on the ground to change. We need increased Palestinian capability, a removal progressively of the Israeli presence and the ability of the Palestinians to have their own homeland… their own state… where they can govern their own affairs and that is the purpose.
But you need all of these three things together, because without the political deal then you won’t get the Palestinians able to build their own state and without the Palestinians building their own state then the facts on the ground won’t change.
I’m aware of the fact that people are very sceptical in this region as to whether we will succeed or not, but we have got to try because there is no alternative but to make this succeed.
Q: But are not people in the region excused for being skeptical if they see that after Annapolis what happened on the ground was a decision to expand the Abu Ghuneim settlement and increase the siege as if nothing happened… We talk about peace in Annapolis and the behaviour of Israelis is different in reality?
A: Well, actually, the international communities called upon Israel to reverse that decision and it is important that we don’t have steps taken, whether outposts or settlements, that are inconsistent with what the final agreement will look like.
And what I’m trying to do is to make sure that we can get economic projects going on the Palestinian sides. For example around Jericho a whole agri-industrial development… For example industrial parks down in [Tulkarem]… For example housing projects… and opening up tourism in Bethlehem… making sure for example in Gaza that the sewage treatment project goes ahead.
There are a whole series of things that we have got to do to change that reality on the ground and I do agree, of course it’s important that both sides do not take steps that are inconsistent with the final deal and that’s what we are working for.
Q: Is this what you are betting on when you say an agreement can be reached in 2008 or are you betting on something else we do not know?
A: Well there’s nothing else I don’t know! Look the starting point of this is to realise that people, including your people watching this, they will say look for 40 years… nothing has happened, it’s never going to happen… so why bother?
And my response to them s: People used to say to me when I came to power in 1997 about Northern Ireland “look – they’ve been fighting each other for years, they’re never going to stop so what’s the point?” And the answer then – and is now, in this situation – is that there is no alternative but to try. And the difference this time, I think, is that for the first time it’s clear for the whole of the international community that this is a priority.
It’s also a priority for Israel because Israel will have no long-term security unless the Palestinians are given a proper state. Of course this will be done in a way that protects Israel’s security but it also has to be done in a way that gives dignity and respect for Palestinians.
And for the Arab world, they want this dispute resolved now. They’ve got other things that they want to look at now. You only have to come to this region and see the enormous economic potential and possibility. Then you look at this dispute in a small territory between Israel and Palestine that has caused so much turmoil the world over… And we can do it, it’s not impossible if the people have the will.
Q: However the question is, to your knowledge do they have the will? Secondly, you say that the international community and the US have a priority to settle this dispute… So why know? Why was President Bush so late in coming to the region; why did he wait till the eighth year of his term?
A: Well, I guess my answer to that would be that we can argue forever as to whether President Bush should have done something different earlier or not… but that’s an argument, we are where we are. The important thing is now he has set this timetable and after all he was actually the first American president ever to commit to a two-state solution and this is a timetable not like Oslo or the other negotiations – it’s an actual timetable to reach an agreement over all the core issues the final status issue.
So I think this is a very ambitious step that has been taken, but I agree we have got to deliver on it now. That’s the task of all of us together; to make sure that we do deliver on it. So we can either sit here and say look it’s hopeless or we can try… And I’m a believer in trying.
Q: What do you say to a viewer who has been following the conflict since the beginning and heard all resolutions; 242, 338 and so on… all of these resolutions when they are talked about became Oslo, post-Oslo, the roadmap in which Arabs saw a bias to Israel… Nevertheless, Israel did not implement them and now there is Bush’s vision and Bush’s promise to Sharon. Where are international resolutions? Why don’t we go back to them?
A: Well, I think we will have to go back to them, but that is not really the issue now. The issue is this; it’s very important if you want to settle a dispute like this you have got to see both sides and sometimes it’s very difficult to see the other point of view.
From the Israeli point of view their pre-occupation is security. They think they are surrounded by countries who don’t want them to exist and they have been subject to certain terrorist attacks from outside into Israel. Now you can argue as to all the reasons why this is an unreasonable point of view but this is how they think. For the Palestinians their reality is that as a result of Israel’s security concern there is the occupation and that occupation is stifling for the Palestinians… they suffer as a result of it.
Now, what I want to do is all these resolutions are great but do they tell you where you want to end up? My point is how do we get from where we are to that end point? And that will only happen if those three bits come together. In other words, you build a Palestinian capability to govern that state effectively because that is of fundamental importance to the Israeli concern on security. And the third thing is in the meantime you start to change what is happening on the ground.
That means lifting the restrictions that are there as the Palestinians gain their capability on security. It means developing the economic side. It means making sure that people are acting in a way and behaving in a way that is consistent with the final agreement. So, yes, it’s true that there have been all these resolutions in the United Nations and security council and elsewhere, but they won’t work unless on [the] ground the reality is changed and that is what I am trying to do now.
Q: You are talking with enthusiasm about this issue on change and the possibility of change being realistic, while the former quartet envoy, Mr Wolfensohn, was said to have left his position because he was so frustrated. The role of the quartet was somewhat suspended or in limbo for several years. You were a prime minister then and you saw what happened in the region. So in your opinion and from your background and experience with Northern Ireland, could the thing be applied in the region this time around? Isn’t it a totally different situation? Aren’t there complications… regional complications that overlap here?
A: It’s certainly complicated this region, I’ll agree with you there. But here’s the difference. When I was British prime minister I was able to come in and out of the region but for a couple of days at a time. And it’s only since I have been the special representative [that] I have been able to come in and spend significant… I mean I’ve been spending a lot of my time out here now and you get a far deeper understanding of what the issue is and what the problem is.
Actually, Jim Wolfensohn did a very good job, but my portfolio is a little broader than that and also in some ways this is a political problem and therefore there is a level of political engagement that I can have as a result of the experience and context that I had as a prime minister.
But at the end the most important thing is that we have the Annapolis conference which launches a process. I agree, it’s just a process but it’s a process with a timeline. We will have Paris next week which will be a pledging conference for the Palestinians and then we have got to put the final bit in place which is to make sure that that change starts to happen on the ground. I hope that within quite a short space of time we can show the Palestinians there is the possibility of progress. And then you can get to the point where all Palestinians, Gaza and West Bank, can get behind a process of peace. sS we can have the two states living side by side in peace which is what both of them need; [what] both sets of people desperately need.
Q: However, when you talk about what goes on on the ground and the realities there you did not even mention Hamas in Gaza. It is there also on the ground and in reality it has its own vision. Was it truly successful – I mean the policy of isolating Hamas and pushing it to Gaza? Some see that this was planned as a beginning of fragmenting the region, there would be a state in Gaza. The Israeli intelligence report estimated that even after the death of President Arafat. Then why was there an insistence on isolating Hamas and are you thinking now to negotiate with Hamas to engage it in this process?
A: Here is the problem very simply with Hamas; I respect entirely the fact that they won the elections. If they want my help I will help, and they want our money, which they do from the international community, we’ve got to agree the terms upon which we help them [and how] that financial support is to be given. And the terms for me are that we agree that there should be two states, Israel and Palestine. So, if they are prepared to enter into that engagement, if you like, on those terms understanding that there are going to be two states fine.
Q: What if they do not understand that?
A: If they do not understand that how can we help them? When people say we’ve isolated Hamas, here is the point, if we all agree that there should be two states, Israel and a viable Palestinian state, the only way you can negotiate is if everybody agrees that’s what you are trying to negotiate.
If Hamas are uncertain or oppose the integration with the Israeli state, it becomes difficult to negotiate with them. You know I think one of the interesting things is for example what Hamas is doing in Gaza now, I think actually most Palestinian people would prefer to see the progress towards the two-state solution. I’m also frankly worried about some things that Hamas is doing in Gaza in terms of their restrictions and the treatment of women and so on.
In the end, when people say you are isolating Hamas or excluding Hamas, this process is prevailed to everybody who shares the same basic goals and that is the two-states, and if Hamas shared that goal and was prepared to deal with it peacefully, fine.
Q: We are now talking about peace in the Middle East, while in the past when we read news and talked about war in Iraq and the decision to go for war on Iraq and your name was mentioned repeatedly at the time you said you did not participate in that war only based on your friendship, your personal friendship with Bush or because you wanted that but because you were convinced with the reasons justifying that war. After all that happened in Iraq, are you still sure that those reasons truly justified what happened?
A: Well, I’ll tell you what I believe; I believe that it was right to remove Saddam Hussein because he was a brutal dictator [who] killed hundreds of thousands of his people. And I also think that… Iraq is given a chance to be a stable country and that those people who are interfering with it from outside stop, whether it is al-Qaeda on the one hand or Iranian elements on the other.
We have given Iraq the possibility of a full democracy, very substantial international support, but when people say to me it is a terrible situation in Iraq with people dying in Iraq, I agree. But the people doing the killing are those who drive cars bombs in the markets full of innocent people. And in the end, Iraqis shouldn’t have a choice between the brutality of Saddam and the brutality of the terrorists with their bombs. They should be able to have what we have.
Q: This is in theory, but on the ground, Iraq has been fragmented now and there was a report saying that after the British withdrawal from Basra, the region will be governed by criminal gangs, the first time we hear such a description.
A: Yes, but this is why it is important that we stop this to make sure that this doesn’t happen. Because in the end, you know, it is a real [indictment] to the sense of the whole international community’s attitude to Iraq.
If the Iraqis are left with a choice between either a brutal dictator named Saddam or certain criminal gangs and terrorists, the majority of the people in Iraq, I’m quite sure [will] want to unify the country with proper systems of government.
Now, I think it is believed they will get there. But it is like the Taliban in Afghanistan. You know, we removed the Taliban from Afghanistan but they are still trying to fight back. But our job when they do fight back should be to stand up to them, not give in to them, because in the end what these people want, they want completely reactionary politics, they want the suppression and repression to the people and they got completely outdated on fashion views. They are brutal in their methods. And what I want from people whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq or in Palestine [is for them] to be free to choose their government to be free to live as they want.
Q: Do you truly believe that they are living their life as they want, or that there is at least a flicker of hope that they can do that in the near future? Some are accusing the United States [of being] the cause of destabilisation in Iraq and now it represents itself as if it was the guarantor?
A: What I want to say is that I agree with that point that they did get that life, but who is stopping them? We are not stopping them; we are trying to help them.
Q: Excuse me, but how are you trying to help them?
A: Because we say that these people who are engaged in terrorism should be defeated and that the government should be allowed to govern the country properly and we are prepared to support that with money from the international community.
I mean look, this is where the debate [is]. It is important that people hear the other point of view, because sometimes I hear even back in my own country someone stops me and says “how can we blame the Muslims for feeling angry with what you and Bush are doing in Afghanistan or what you do in Iraq?” And I say to people – we removed two brutal dictatorial regimes then gave the United States back [the] process for democracy, plus a vast amount of international money and support.
The terrorists, Taliban, al-Qaeda, these different groups in Iraq then come in blowing up innocent people and trying to kill innocent people to stop that process and people say it is your fault, it is not. It is the fault is the people who are doing the killing.
Q: It is worth nothing that when you launched the war you didn’t say to remove Saddam Hussein, you said there were weapons of mass destruction and that was not proven. And now the Americans say they are in the region to protect it from terrorism. Some believe that the terrorism is the presence of occupation in the region and what Iraqis received is non-stability and if you ask them they would have preferred to keep the security.
A: When people say that George Bush has provoked the terrorism, let’s just analyse that for a moment. I mean, what is so terrible about removing a brutal dictatorial regime and say now we are going to give the people [the right] to elect their government? How does that provoke terrorism?
It is the terrorist that is doing the terrorism and one of the things that we have got to do is to get our mindset away from excusing this terrorism or saying that these extremists somehow represent ordinary Muslims which they don’t – and get to the point when we all unite whether we are moderate people of whatever religious persuasion against the extremists who want to cause division and sectarianism.
Q: Some inhabitants in the region do not have a problem with whom you are describing as extremists. They have a problem with the description of the resistance men to terrorists. The term terrorism has not reached consensus in the world. Let us ask now about your vision about what will happen in the world as all eyes now turns towards Iran.
A: This is the thing that I cannot understand. I’ve studied resistance movements in history and we had many in the Second World War; very brave people.
But when we talk about resistance movements in Afghanistan or Iraq we’ve got to transfer people to vote [for] their government. So, what is the resistance exactly? I mean, if they elect a government and the government says the foreign troops get out, the foreign troops get out.
The truth is these people call themselves resistance fighters but they are not interested in what people think. What they are actually trying to do is to stop their country from being run by the people and instead be run by an ideology that is based on a complete perversion of the proper vision of Islam and to try intern this country backwards. For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan refuse to allow girls to be taught in school. Well, what [sort of] a resistance movement is that? I mean, you know I think we’ve just got to recognise that these people are not actually resistance fighters at all.
Q: However there is a resistance to the Israeli occupation in the Middle East and also some may describe as terrorism other acts from a different point of view. As an envoy, peace envoy, do you see things in a different manner that you saw in the past, for example shelling media offices let’s say, how do you describe that?
A: I don’t agree with this, but I don’t know what offices you mean.
Q: I mean Al Jazeera offices for example in Afghanistan or in Iraq?
A: Well, first of all let me say this, you asked what I’ve learned in my time as envoy to the Middle East. I think what I have learned by travelling and seeing around Jericho in the Jordan valley and Hebron, actually travelling in the Palestinian territory, I do understand the deep sense of injustice the Palestinian people have, and I don’t agree with terrorism in any context instantly.
I understand why the Palestinian people feel angry. The important thing is to change that situation. Instantly I don’t agree with bombing the media for being the media in any situation; even though we have our disagreements from time to time.
Q: As long as you have mentioned, some people in Al Jazeera feel that they owe you their lives about that conversation between you and President Bush in which it is said you convinced him not to bomb Al Jazeera’s office.
A: I don’t think you have been really in any danger. So, it is kind of you to thank me but it is not necessary.
Q: So this conversation did not take place, there was not intention or it took place in a different context?
A: No, put it like this, as far as I know, there never has been any intention to bomb Al Jazeera. What happens in politics is that you live your life in conspiracy theories and frankly there are enough normal and real political problems to solve without worrying about those ones. So, I’m afraid, I’m sorry to tell the viewers but that particular conspiracy about President Bush is not correct.