Israeli responses to the news that Tony Blair has accepted the post of Quartet Middle East Envoy have ranged from the warmly supportive, via the mildly bemused, to the downright opposed. The former British prime minister is generally regarded as warmly disposed to Israel. He has often expressed himself in this regard. Blair’s latest mission, however, is flawed in its very definition.
The current direction of western diplomacy vis a vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on support for the new PA government established by Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank, following the Hamas coup in Gaza. The hope is to build a model of successful governance on the West Bank. This successful new PA government will then continue negotiations with Israel on the basis of the Road Map. The job description for Blair’s new post is tailored to this endeavor. Mr. Blair is to “help create viable and lasting government institutions representing all Palestinians, a robust economy, and a climate of law and order for the Palestinian people.”
Behind this bland, job-advert type prose (Mid-East envoy wanted for challenging position, responsibilities will include…) are two core items of faith, for which Blair has been a key proselytizer throughout his career. These are that ‘economics leads politics,’ and that external aid in creating institutions will produce political order, and responsible government and policy. That is: if only people are offered sufficient economic incentives, and if only enough money is poured into the creation of projects and institutions, then the result will be a responsible political entity, ready to do business in a rational manner with its neighbors. This belief formed the basis for the great efforts to secure Israeli-Palestinian peace in the 1990s. It is also, at least in the Mid-Eastern context, demonstrably wrong.
The recipient for the largesse which Tony Blair will seek to channel to the West Bank will be the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas. This movement, according to all observers on the ground, does not consider that the historic defeats it has recently suffered are any reason for a major re-think. One hears, on the contrary, that there is fury among powerful factions in the movement at the appointment of non-Fatah technocrats such as Salam Fayad to key positions. The Fatah sense of entitlement, of being the ‘sole legitimate representative’ and the rest of it, remains. No grass-roots plan for reform of the movement exists or is likely to come into existence. The armed elements of Fatah, meanwhile, are continuing to operate without central direction from the movement’s leadership. They are today as much engaged in criminal activity as in political.
This dysfunctional system has a proven track record of absorbing international generosity, and producing from it a huge mess, accompanied by sonorous excuses.
The eclipse of US and British hopes for rapid ‘democratization’ in the region, and the fear of rising Islamism, have led to a desire to fall back on western regional clients, in the hope that they may contribute their proven skills maintaining stability. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Mubarak’s Egypt, for all their many flaws, are plausible performers of this role. The current desire is to include Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas under this rubric. But the evidence indicates that Fatah is simply not capable of performing such a role. While the attempt takes place, meanwhile, the Iranian-backed Islamist organizations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be building their own infrastructures on the West Bank – almost certainly largely unmolested by the forces of the new Fatah government.
Israel’s strategy of unilateralism was meant to be a response to this absence of a partner capable of taking decisions and producing results. But the alarming growth of Iranian-backed Islamism in the neighborhood has placed this strategy on ice. It may be that de facto arrangements drawing Jordan further into the West Bank, – and a joint Israeli and Egyptian facing down of the Islamist statelet in Gaza – will prove the only sustainable path in the dark moment which the region is now passing through.
Before this, however, we are in for the latest installment of the Fatah show. There will be international meetings, clicking cameras, handshakes on staircases, solemn commitments. There will be pathos. There will be Hanan Ashrawi. And on the ground, the same political culture that received previous Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn’s gift of 4,000 greenhouses in Gaza in September, 2005, and then stood by as they were looted and destroyed by a mob, will dictate the course of events.
Former Prime Minister Blair is about to become the west’s point man in the effort to turn the Fatah-led West Bank into a model of successful governance. His friendship toward Israel is without doubt genuinely felt. Given the challenges that await, and given that the lecture circuit and more-time-with-the-family were also options, one can only greet his new choice of employment with the kind of affection mixed with concern that one reserves for true, if slightly mis-guided friends.