Last summer, a Palestinian friend drove me north of the West Bank city of Jenin, up to the ‘security’ wall, with its familiar landscape of watchtowers, barbed wire and concrete blocks. Twenty years ago, one could easily catch a bus from there to the nearby town of Nazareth, in Israel, where many West Bank Palestinians have relatives. Now you need an Israeli ID to cross the military checkpoint, though Israeli citizens may still move freely into Jenin, where they shop at bargain prices in the local souk.
My friend abruptly stopped his car in a barren plain, next to what he calls the ‘apartheid wall’. ‘See, look!’ I looked as hard as I could but all I could see on every side was a void of depressing emptiness. ‘Well, you are looking at the development area Tony Blair inaugurated here many years ago. We, the people of Jenin, were so excited by this project, Mister Blair was invited in to so many community meetings and celebratory meals. We should have known not to trust him.’
Jenin’s very own ‘Empty Quarter’, and my friend’s bitter words, are a suitable commentary on Tony Blair’s eight-year-long mission as special envoy of the Quartet in the Middle East. The Quartet is an odd structure created by the Bush administration at the heyday of the Global War on Terror. The Americans invited Russia, the European Union and the UN to join the Quartet in order to have them inside the tent rather than out, but without relinquishing any significant control over the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP).
As the saying goes among diplomats serving in the Middle East, ‘the US decides, the EU pays and the UN feeds’. One might add that, in the Quartet, the Russians have to play ball. But despite the limits imposed by Washington on his mission, the first Quartet envoy worked very hard to achieve durable accomplishments: in 2005 James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank, and a US citizen, presented the G8 with a three-year plan for the Gaza Strip that would have secured freedom of movement for its inhabitants, the reopening of the local airport and the establishment of a viable sea-route out of Gaza.
Israel opted instead for a scorched-earth policy when it evacuated Gaza soon afterwards. Mahmud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority was sidelined, which naturally benefitted its competitors: Hamas. Wolfensohn had privately raised fourteen million dollars (including half a million of his own money) to monitor the transfer of the Israeli settlers’ greenhouses in Gaza to Palestinian farmers. Most of the these went up in flames, destroying Wolfensohn’s dream of a rehabilitated Gaza Strip.
Tony Blair succeeded Wolfensohn in 2007 and quickly erased Gaza from his agenda, blaming its misfortunes on Hamas, which had taken full control of the now besieged Palestinian enclave. One might wonder what Blair thought of his predecessor’s personal (and, ultimately, frustrated) generosity: did he consider it obscene? Irrelevant? Or plain stupid? What is undeniable is that the new Quartet envoy, while bragging he was not charging a penny for his mission, used this international role to foster his numerous business interests in the region.
So now let us assume for one moment that Tony Blair was sincere in his ‘West Bank first’ commitment and emphasis on economic development as the safest way to reach a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. During his eight years as a special envoy, only the short-sighted effort of external donors has nurtured an artificial bubble around Ramallah and, to a lesser extent, Nablus. The economy of the West Bank is still tragically dependent, while the number of Israeli settlers had increased by 25 per cent, reaching the mind-boggling number of 350,000 (in addition to 200,000 Israeli residents of occupied East Jerusalem).
Some 500 Israeli ‘official’ checkpoints, along with unofficial ones set up by wildcat settlers, are still killing the prospect of any viable development in the West Bank. And this goes without mentioning the Gaza Strip, the target of three devastating wars during Blair’s tenure (the special envoy insisted that he spent two of the three weeks of the July 2014 offensive against Gaza in the Middle East, shuttling between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo––apparently an exception to his summer schedule that he expected to be complimented for).
Such an appalling record would have prompted any decent official to admit his complete failure and to resign from his position. But Tony Blair clung on, hoping that the Obama administration would reward his unconditional loyalty with a significant appointment. He even tried to up the ante last year through an embarrassing embrace of a Russian-Western alliance against ‘radical Islam’, all wrapped up in his praise of the social and political ‘tolerance’ allegedly prevailing in the Gulf States.
One should never forget that, throughout his eight years as the Quartet’s representative, Tony Blair was representing all of us in the Middle East. His shameful performance is and remains a collective embarrassment. Let us hope his successor will show greater dedication to a long-awaited peace deal in the Middle East, instead of being obsessed with his own glory and private business affairs.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is Professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, and has held visiting professorships at both Columbia University and Georgetown University. He is the author of Gaza: A History and, most recently, From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy.