Commentary Magazine


Blair’s Puzzling Middle East Address

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who now serves as the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, has given a major speech to Bloomberg, urging greater Western engagement in the Middle East. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Blair’s message was his warning about the ongoing dangers of radical Islam. The speech gets a lot right, and yet some of its conclusions seemed confused–at odds with the sound premises that Blair laid out in other parts of the very same speech.

It is hard to account for this anomaly. Given the “warmonger” status that some in his own country still try to relegate him to, perhaps the former prime minister feels the need to temper his statements with some politically correct platitudes? Still, it is quite possible that Blair’s worldview is just fundamentally a confused one.

As Douglas Murray has already pointed out, Blair’s encouraging statements about the critical threat posed by radical Islam were somewhat offset by his insistence that political Islam “distorts and warps Islam’s true message.” For as Murray reminds us, Blair’s longstanding line about Islam being a “religion of peace” has not always allowed for an entirely honest discussion of the extent to which hardline Islam simply draws on existing themes within the Islamic tradition. Yet, where Blair’s speech really appeared to become confused was on the matter of Israel and the Palestinians. Here there seemed to be an almost inexplicable incongruence between Blair’s premises and his recommendations for policy.

As ever, Blair’s comments about Israel were hearteningly supportive. He emphasized the importance of Israel as an ally to the West and reminded listeners that the West couldn’t be indifferent to Israel’s fate in the event that Israel should find itself in a regional conflict—a reference to Iran perhaps. Yet, when it came to the matter of the peace process, Blair’s comments turned from reassuring to puzzling. The former prime minister laid out a number of key foundational truths on this matter–truths that Western leaders could do with asserting far more often–and yet Blair still seemed to end up endorsing the same failed conclusions that have so far led Secretary of State John Kerry to such a humiliating defeat in his efforts on this front.

Most importantly, Blair reminded his audience that the Israel-Palestinian dispute is not the cause of the region’s problems, despite the widespread and mistaken thinking to contrary. Blair explained: “It remains absolutely core to the region and the world. Not because the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the cause of our problems. But because solving it would be such a victory for the very forces we should support. Now it may be that after years of it being said that solving this question is the route to solving the regions’ problems, we’re about to enter a new phase where solving the region’s problems a critical part of solving the Israeli/Palestinian issue.”

This mention of “a victory for the forces we should support” of course relates to Blair’s wider point about supporting liberal and democratic forces in the region so as to vanquish the extremist ones. And here Blair was able to outline why all attempts to solve the Israel-Palestinian dispute thus far have failed. “The issue in which we have expended extraordinary energy and determination through US Secretary Kerry, still seems as intractable as ever” Blair conceded, “Yet the explanation for all of these apparently unresolvable contradictions is staring us in the face.” The whole point is that the emphasis on what Israel does or does not do is really immaterial when what we are really facing is an ideology of unappeasable extremism. As Blair outlined:

It is that there is a Titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the region to embrace the modern world…and those who instead want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity. This is the battle. This is the distorting feature. This is what makes intervention so fraught but non-intervention equally so. This is what complicates the process of political evolution. This is what makes it so hard for democracy to take root. This is what, irrespective of the problems on the Israeli side, divides Palestinian politics and constrains their leadership.

And yet after having spoken so much sense, Blair proceeded to praise Kerry and to disagree with those who condemned the secretary of state for the wildly disproportionate amount of energy and time that he has put into forcing hopeless negotiations between the two sides. One wonders if it is only Blair’s position as Middle East envoy that compels him to parrot this pro-peace process line. It is, however, possible that while doing the former, this is Blair’s way of telling the world that there will be no meaningful peace process until extremism can be dealt with and that the last people who should be blamed or undermined are the Israelis. If not, then it is difficult to know how else to explain the confused conclusions of an otherwise praiseworthy address. 

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