In an exclusive interview with Terrasanta.net, Tony Blair says religious leaders should play a more important role in the Middle East peace process and that Hamas and Hezbollah should be allowed - with conditions - to take part in negotiations. The Middle East Quartet peace envoy, representing the US, UN, EU and Russia, says he is inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi, and says peace in the Holy Land could, in some sense, be easier to achieve than it was in Northern Ireland. He also gives an account of progress so far in the peace process, and the prospects for a lasting agreement under the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In an exclusive interview with Terrasanta.net, Tony Blair says religious leaders should play a more important role in the Middle East peace process and that Hamas and Hezbollah should be allowed - with conditions - to take part in negotiations.
The Middle East Quartet peace envoy, representing the US, UN, EU and Russia, says he is inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi, and says peace in the Holy Land could, in some sense, be easier to achieve than it was in Northern Ireland. He also gives an account of progress so far in the peace process, and the prospects for a lasting agreement under the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Blair was speaking in Rimini, Italy, Aug. 27th where he was addressing Communion and Liberation's 30th Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples.
Mr Blair, what have been the challenges, and what progress has been made, in economic development of the West Bank- a programme which you have supported?
The answer is there has been progress. The West Bank economy, according to the IMF's latest estimates, will probably grow in excess of seven percent this year. It's already grown by over seven percent in the first quarter of 2009. When I was in Nablus just a short time ago, I could notice the difference very visibly and that is principally the result of the security that Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister, has introduced with help from the Americans, ourselves and others. But it's also as a result of some easing of the restrictions from the Israelis. Some of the major roadblocks are now open. That's just happened in these last months. On the other hand, it could be growing at twice that if we made genuine political progress and started to get restrictions on access of movement lifted in a fundamental way. So the answer is: we have made progress, there are good signs, but there is a long distance to go.
Are you putting on a lot of pressure, using different channels, to try and ease those restrictions?
Yes. I know more about the number of lanes at, and the precise types of restrictions, of the various roadblocks on the West Bank than I ever thought I would or should. But it does make a tremendous difference. I mean as a result, for example, of one roadblock that's been open, a journey that used to take two and half to three hours now takes 45 minutes. Now that makes a huge difference to business, never mind ordinary people, so there are those improvements. But the first thing Palestinians would say to you is... we are doing better than we were for sure, and there has been some significant change in the last two years, but there is much, much more we could do.
Are you channelling a lot of that economic development into education specifically, as many say that's the most important aspect of development in the region?
We do raise money for education and there is a Palestinian education reform programme which is both about reforming its curriculum but also about improving the facilities there. So there are things that could be done there. Actually, traditionally, Palestine has had quite a good education system but there is a lot more that can now be done. The key thing is, when we raised approximately $5 billion for the Palestinian Authority in late 2007 at the Paris meeting, we did that for the first time really against a specific programme of change, reform and institution building. My whole theory about this dispute is that it cannot be solved simply by negotiation from the top down, it has to be built from the bottom up. So in other words, the truth is: there will be no Palestinian state unless Israel can be sure it will be well run, well governed because otherwise, if they think what is happening in Gaza will happen in the West Bank, there is no way this negotiation will succeed. So these practical issues on the ground are far more integral to this than the outsider often thinks.
How important is religion in the peace process? Do you think religious leaders should play a more significant role in bringing peace to the region?
I do think they should play a more significant role. The fact is you cannot resolve something like Jerusalem simply by a political negotiation. It requires at least the good will of the faith communities and, at most, the positive part they can play in promoting reconciliation. When you are in Jerusalem, you have the faiths literally side by side with each other. So if people sometimes say to me, you know, this is really nothing to do with religion, I will say to them it obviously is to do with religion because religion is part of the context and background within which this dispute has come about. So, of course, it would help enormously, and by and large the churches do play a very positive role. If you've got rabbis and imams and priests working together, of course you've got a better chance of a solution.
Is St. Francis and his example something which you're inspired by?
Yes, absolutely. That message is one that of course has its place, and has its place even among people who don't necessarily share our belief or our faith.
How optimistic are you that progress can really be made towards a two state solution now we have the hard line Netanyahu government in power? Some believe this lessens the chances of peace.
There are always two ways of looking at this: one is that as a result of a hard line government, you won't get a deal. The other is, because it's a hard line government, it can deliver a deal.
Are you of the view that only Nixon could go to China?
As I will say to people, the great example is the ‘Nixon goes to China' one, although it is important that he goes, if you see what I mean! I tend to the view that, in the right circumstances, Netanyahu will deliver a deal. Certainly in the conversations I've had with him, his anxiety is merely a pronounced version of the existential Israeli anxiety which is: unless you can be sure, in this small bit of territory, there is a genuine basis for peace, then it's hard to see how two states can live together. That's why it's important that in peace there's a final settlement of all the issues - that once it's done, it's got to be done, and it's got to be done on the basis where the Palestinians have a viable, independent state and the Israelis have a secure state.
It's been said that Hamas and Hezbollah should be brought into the peace process. Are you in favour of that in some way, that they should be included in some negotiations?
It is better to have them in, for sure. It's certainly better to have them in the Palestinian context as part of the process. The trouble is that it's difficult to bring them in unless it's on a basis that we're all working towards the same end. That's why the Quartet principles are that unless there's a clear commitment to non-violence as the means of achieving their ends, and unless it's clear that we're all trying to get a two state solution, then it becomes difficult to see what the purpose is in involving them in this. So the short answer is the divisions in Palestinian politics are an inhibition. It is better to overcome them, but you can only ever overcome them if there's some basic agreement on the principles governing the process.
Netanyahu said on his recent trip to London that building settlements was right in the sense that he simply wants Israelis to live "normal lives". What is your view on this?
Well, the issue of settlements is a very complicated and difficult one. But essentially the issue is this: that what the international community is keen to avoid is a situation whereby Israel will build settlements on what will almost certainly be Palestinian territory in a Palestinian state; that if Israel then expands settlements on parts that will reasonably be given to the Palestinians, it will just make it far harder to reach an agreement. Now there's then an argument in which the Israelis say that within these communities you need facilities for children, or healthcare. So you get quite a few complicated arguments around it. But the basic point is this: the basic desire is to ensure that no one does something that undermines the prospect of an agreement. But I personally think the most important thing is to get these negotiations underway, because of course as soon as you decide what the territory of the state is, the settlement issue is then, at least, defined.
So overall are you optimistic that peace could be achieved in your lifetime?
Yes, it certainly could be, and I am by nature an optimist, but whether it will be... It's a challenge for sure, but if people want to have peace they certainly could because the basis for peace is perfectly comprehensible, which is two states. In Northern Ireland it was always more difficult because there was never agreement as to the ultimate solution - a United Kingdom or a united Ireland. The peace process has managed that disagreement, it hasn't finally resolved it. In a sense, with this peace process, on one level it's easier because there is agreement: we should get two states, but it depends on the will. But my view very strongly is that what has been lost in recent years is the credibility of the process. What has not been lost is the essential desire, on the part of both Israelis and the Palestinians, to have a deal.
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