Tony Blair on Restarting the Middle East Peace Process

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Nayef Hashlamoun / Reuters

Middle East envoy Tony Blair visits the West Bank village of Beit Skarya near Bethlehem.

In between bites of an orange on a balcony in the fabled American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, Tony Blair, ex–British Prime Minister and current mediator for the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spoke candidly with TIME's Jerusalem bureau chief Tim McGirk about the obstacles to peace. Earlier, Blair had met with Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish new Israeli premier, who says he will keep talking peace but left open the question of whether Israel would accept a Palestinian state. "One thing I learned," says Blair, "is that you simply just don't give up." (See pictures of Tony Blair's 10 years as British Prime Minister.)

TIME: How much longer do you expect to keep shuttling to the Middle East?
[Laughing] As long as it takes. People keep saying this to me as if I were going to bunk off at any point. I knew this would be extremely difficult. But I don't give up on these things. I also think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of fundamental importance to the whole struggle going on in the Islamic world. That isn't to say that its cause is the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, but its resolution would be a major part to solving it. If this thing could be put on a better and different path, it would change the whole dynamic within Islam.

How so?
It will empower the moderates. This is the issue far more than Iraq or Afghanistan — it's what allows the extremists to reach across into moderate opinion.

Your job as peace envoy got a lot tougher after the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza and a new right-wing government in Israel ...
There's a lot of cynicism and concern about what the new [Israeli] government means here — and obviously a lot of despair after what happened in Gaza. But we have no option but to pick ourselves up from here. What happens in these next couple of months will really be critical. We need three elements: a credible political negotiation for a two-state solution; a program of major change on the West Bank, and an easing of the blockade in Gaza. If we get those, we'll be back in business again. (See pictures of the recovery attempts in Gaza after the Israeli invasion.)

Are you optimistic?
By nature I'm optimistic. I look for silver linings.

Have you found any?
Yes, I think the fact that the new Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] is really clear that he wants economic and security change on the West Bank. That's what we agreed we'd work on with him. There are one or two things that [Netanyahu's] term "economic peace" can mean. One, that economic development is a substitute for state, and that's obviously not acceptable. I personally think he wants the second, to build the [Palestinian] state from the bottom up. I understand and buy into that. It's important for the Israeli government to come out and say we want a two-state solution, but the circumstances have got to be right.

Under what conditions should the international community deal with Hamas?
There's a problem. It's very hard for the international community to put the money into the Palestinian government where [Hamas] is saying, We reserve the right to use violence, to fire rockets at innocent Israeli civilians. Truth is, if Hamas were to say, "We're pursuing our political objectives by nonviolent means," they would, at a stroke, liberate the international community to say there's now got to be a solution.

But Hamas keeps shooting rockets into Israel.
Firing these rockets isn't just morally wrong — they're shooting at innocent civilians — but it's also tactically useless. At no level is it sensible. I'm all for Hamas coming into this process, but only on a basis that we can deal with. Otherwise, we're put in an impossible situation in which we're tacitly supporting activities that are geared to violent resistance. (See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.)

The U.N. is calling for Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza. Do you agree?
We've got to change this policy on Gaza. It doesn't work. Hamas gets what they want through the tunnels and civil society is put at a disadvantage. We've got to help the people in Gaza. I'd like to see humanitarian help in its broadest sense going in — that's not just food and fuel but also help in rebuilding infrastructure and houses. The Israelis obviously are concerned about anything that might have a security implication. But we have to distinguish between what is a security risk [for the Israelis] and, as it were, a decision that while Gaza remains under Hamas control, that even necessary help for rebuilding infrastructure will be denied.

Are you ready to go back into Gaza?
Absolutely. At one level, Gaza is a dangerous place, but I've been in before and I'll go in again. It's really important that the international community engages in Gaza. There are lots of people in Gazan society who are anxious for support and who have nothing to do with politics. They just want to make a living.

Once again, peace talks seem to have stalled. Why?
For last six months you've had a hiatus — paralysis in the Israeli government, problems on the Palestinian side, and a transition going on in America. All these things are now clearing. The next couple of months will determine if we can breathe new life back into this process. No doubt we need to. The question is: Can we?

What's the answer?
The hiatus is over. Now we have to return to basic principles and put this back together again. You've got a new U.S. Administration determined to take this forward, and you've got an Israeli government that at least is going to be empowered to make decisions [because of its majority in Knesset]. For all these reasons we're back in with a shout. (See pictures of Tony Blair's friendship with George W. Bush.)

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says that all these talks with Israel have yielded nothing.
I think it's very simple. If the moderates on the Palestinian side show they can make progress by engagement [with Israel] they'll be strong. If they engage and can't make progress they'll be weak. It's an absolutely simple equation.

Is this tougher than bringing peace to Northern Ireland?
One thing I learned is that you simply just don't give up. People said Northern Ireland was completely hopeless. But in the end, it wasn't. And this isn't, either. On one level, this is easier because there is an agreement among most people — and that's trying to reach a two-state solution.

See pictures of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

See pictures of hope in Northern Ireland.