Tony Blair | "Speech to Council on Foreign Relations"

Foundation Update

Tony Blair | "Speech to Council on Foreign Relations"

14 Jun 2012

On Wednesday 3 December 2008, Tony Blair presented a speech to council on foreign relations in Washington DC. You can read the full transcript of the speech below:

Check against Delivery

In the past 15 months as Quartet Representative to the Middle East I have learnt a great deal.

I have learnt that the Israeli-Palestinian issue – seemingly intractable – can be solved. I have had reinforced my belief that indeed it must be.

So, how can it be done?

The past 40 years are littered with initiatives, signposts to various potential breakthroughs, unsatisfactory compromises, new dawns that swiftly turned to dusk and failed negotiations. Along the way, there have been immense gains that sometimes are obscured by the central impasse. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel. The Arab Peace Initiative of the then Crown Prince Abdullah in 2002 signalled a new pan-Arab approach. The contours of the final status issues, if not their outcomes, have been clarified.

The Annapolis process and the limited but, nonetheless, real change on the West Bank during the past year – for which the President and Secretary Rice deserve much credit – have yielded a genuine platform for the future.

But the central impasse does indeed remain. My view – formed since I came to Jerusalem and refining much of what I thought when I tussled intermittently with the issue for 10 years as British Prime Minister – is that it remains because the reality on the ground does not, as yet, sufficiently support the compromises necessary to secure a final, negotiated settlement. In other words, we have tended to proceed on the basis that if we could only agree the terms of the two state solution – territory, refugees, Jerusalem – i.e. the theory, we would then be able to change the reality of what was happening on the ground i.e. the practice. In my view, it is as much the other way around. The political process and changing the reality have to march in lock-step. Until recently, they haven't.

The reason this is critical to resolving this dispute is as follows. The problem is not that reasonable people do not agree, roughly, what the two states look like. I don't minimise the negotiation challenge. But listen to sensible Palestinians and sensible Israelis and you will quickly find the gaps are not that big; certainly are not unbridgeable.

Ask the people, Israeli or Palestinian, and they will say very simply: yes, a two state solution is ideal; but then they will say, equally simply, no it can't happen. Why? Because each people has lost faith in the other's good faith. Israelis don't believe they have a partner for peace. Palestinians don't believe Israel is sincere in offering statehood.

The reasons for this are also simple. Put yourself in the shoes of Israel. For years Israel has fought for the right to exist. For years it has been surrounded by other nations, much larger than Israel, which question that right to exist. They tried, so they would say, to reach a settlement, most recently in 2000. They despaired of negotiation. So under Prime Minister Sharon, they decided to disengage from the Palestinians and create a de facto separation into two states. So they leave Gaza. In their eyes, they end "the occupation". They take 8000 settlers with them. They get Hamas and rocket attacks in return. Look at the map. Gaza threatens Sderot and Ashkelon but rockets cannot, as yet, reach from Gaza to the main centres of population in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Israel cannot live with a Gaza-type mess on the West Bank. It cannot live with Hamas and their rockets a few miles from Ben Gurion airport. So now Israelis say: we have a failed set of steps for peace, a divided Palestine, a divided Palestinian authority and therefore no proper partner for peace.

You cannot understand Israel's position unless you understand that unless Israel believes a Palestinian state will be a secure partner for peace, they will not agree it.

There are Israelis who believe in one state – a Greater Israel – but they aren't the majority. The majority are "two staters" who have given up believing that two states are possible. That is their reality.

The Palestinian reality is however, harsh, oppressive and acute. Put yourself in their shoes. Their land is occupied. Each part of their lives, as they see it, is regulated by the occupying power: they are not free to move, to build in well over half their territory and they see settlements dug deep inside what, on any basis, will be the land of their state. As a result of the network of restrictions, they can be made to wait hours to visit relatives, get to work, get to school. They suffer the indignity of being searched, the humiliation of being herded, the trauma – and it is a trauma – of knowing that at any moment their daily existence can be turned upside down.

That is their reality. Its impact is to appear to mock pretentions of statehood. The Palestinians know they will have to make compromises as Israel will. They know compromises will be painful; but why should they endure that pain, why should they engage in that hard headed negotiation of an Agreement when the reality contradicts, in their eyes, the likelihood that any such Agreement will ever be translated into effect? Why lay down the rhetoric and move from resistance to governance, when the facts of daily life disprove the possibility that such governance can exist? That is their reality.

In other words, the problem is that until now, the reality on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians has not passed the minimum threshold of credibility for such a negotiation to succeed: not for the Israelis on security, not for the Palestinians on lifting the occupation.

The key, therefore, to resolving this, is not to try to put a negotiated Agreement on the top of a pyramid whose foundations are, as yet, lopsided and uncertain. The key is, simultaneous with the political process, to secure those foundations and build them from the bottom up. Then, as the reality changes, so will the context for a successful negotiation.

Let me emphasise: we need a strong and credible political process and we need it with a firm, shared vision at its heart: two states. It would have been good if the principles of such a vision could have been set out this year. Unfortunately, it has not yet proved possible but the issues are well known and through Annapolis are under active discussion for the first time. However, there will not be a successful and final conclusion to any such process unless the reality is conforming to it, boosting it, underpinning it and not contradicting it.

The good news is that the internal and external conditions that for so long militated against peace, now so strongly argue for it. Israel knows that it cannot swallow up the Palestinians. The decision by Prime Minister Sharon to put the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, withdraw from Gaza, and put nothing between Palestine and Jordan saw to that. It is, in truth, the Sharon legacy. He actually decided against Greater Israel.

For the Palestinians, they have learnt. The leadership of Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyed is not playing at peace making. They want it and if allowed to, will make it.

And, perhaps most significant of all, the Arab nations are now ready for peace. Palestine is no longer a cause to be paraded symbolically, a rallying cry to motivate the people; it is a thorn, a cause as likely to be used against them as for them, a symbol not of their determination but of their impotence. They want justice for the Palestinians, genuinely and passionately. But they harbour no delusions that this will come through the destruction of Israel.

There is something else. All sides now fear the influence of Iran; fear it and want to focus on it, shorn of a problem that complicates, confuses and confounds such focus.

The challenge is that the years following the second Intifada made the realities for both sides all the tougher. So: What now? We need four things.

First, there has to be that viable, serious negotiating process. It will need creativity, ingenuity and most of all, goodwill generated by positive change on the ground. But it should not be forced to a premature conclusion. It needs to be taken forward with vigour and determination both for its own sake, but also because without that prospect to aim for, changing the reality will be all the harder. It is also essential that neither side prejudices the outcome of such a process – which is why the expansion of settlements is so threatening to the Palestinians.

Second, the Israeli reality – Palestinian security capability – has to be subject to a comprehensive plan, with a comprehensive plan of implementation. Here again, thanks to the excellent work of General Jones and General Dayton, together with the EU mission on civil policing, we don't need to start from scratch. There are Palestinian forces being trained – battalion by battalion – in Jordan; and now starting to be deployed. There is a Palestinian reform plan for not just the security forces, but police, courts, criminal justice, prisons, prosecutions actively supported by the European Commission and member states – in other words, the full panoply of a proper functioning system of law and order. All that remains is for these proposals to be brought together, systematised and made susceptible of implementation in co-ordination with Israel. This is not as easy as it sounds. But with proper attention, it could be done and has to be.

Because, as the capacity for the Palestinians to provide security on the West Bank grows, so the Israelis have, progressively, to lift the occupation. As Palestine does more, Israel should do less.

In case you think this is an idle dream, it is happening now. It is only beginning. It has a huge way to go. But it is happening, nonetheless. In Jenin, in the Northern West Bank, in a piece of territory larger than Gaza, Palestinian forces now do most of the security under Prime Minister Fayyad's leadership – and it is a massive credit to him – Palestinian forces are now keeping order also in Nablus. Recently they have moved to Hebron.

The picture is slowly changing. The first major checkpoints – like Shave Shomeron, Halhul and Rimonim – have been opened.

We have therefore empirical evidence that such an approach works. It now has to be moved to a far greater level of operation and permeation. And, as they are now, outside forces from friendly nations can help.

Third, into this changing security picture and intimately joined to it, must come economic and social change. There is a tendency – understandable – for the international community and NGOs to dilate constantly on the inhibition that access and movement restrictions place on the Palestinian economy and society. Do not misunderstand me: those restrictions must be lifted for the Palestinian economy to achieve its potential and the sooner, the better.

But, what has happened in the last year shows that there is no shortage of enterprise on the part of the Palestinian people, despite all the manifold difficulties. The IMF are revising their figures for the West Bank economy. They will show significant economic growth for 2008. In Bethlehem – where we have worked really hard to get a change in conditions – hotel occupancy which 12 months ago was 10% is now over 80%. Bethlehem will be full this Christmas. Over 1 million tourists have come.

The olive harvest this year has doubled. There are plans, now financed, for major housing developments, and scores of smaller development projects are springing up all over the West Bank. The unemployment rate – of a growing population – is falling. We hope early next year the Jenin industrial park will begin construction.

There is plenty to despair of; but there are also slender, but real, grounds for hope.

But, again, this part of the foundation for peace needs to be taken to a far more integrated and systemic level of work. The Paris Conference raised $7.7billion for the Palestinians. This year the budget support has been the highest ever. The Palestinians have now a worked out reform programme for institution building.

Of course the Palestinian economy can only really fulfil its potential when the Palestinian people are free. But what has happened in the last year shows that potential.

The point is that in respect of both realities – Israeli and Palestinian – there is progress which we can deepen, lessons that can be applied. But it won't happen without intense and intensive, granular, detailed application.

Fourth, we need a new strategy for Gaza. The tadiya or calm was the right thing to do. It should be maintained. But it isn't an answer. The people of Gaza continue to suffer grievously. The people of Sderot continue to live in fear. The smuggling through the tunnels – as I heard last week from Gazan businesses – puts the legitimate economy at risk. The military grip of Hamas tightens. We have to show to the people of Gaza how another choice can exist, so they can re-join some state of normality, and that we will work to bring such a situation about, so that the suffering can end. I have little doubt that people would take such a choice, especially if on the West Bank they saw tangible change and improvement.

But one thing is for sure: we cannot maintain the status quo there another year. It won't work. The terms of Palestinian unity should also be set, by the international community and by the Arab world – terms that are fair to the Palestinian people but are consistent with the two State solution. There can only be one Palestinian state. It will combine Gaza and the West Bank. However much we are tempted to set Gaza to one side – because of the chaos it causes to Palestinian cohesion – it cannot be. But neither is its predicament inevitable. It can and must be reversed.

In all these areas, there is no need – indeed it would be an error – to start from square one.

What is required, rather, is an enhanced order of dedication to build the reality on the ground which, according to the thesis I have outlined today, is the necessary condition for a successful political negotiation, ensuring the two dimensions are intertwined, each as important as the other, each on its own much less than the sum of both together.

Seeing them in this way is more than an act of analysis. It then changes the method by which we proceed. It means we recognise a degree of particularity in respect of the confidence building on the ground – around the security, the economic and social development, and the partnership between Israel and the Palestinians to achieve it – that takes a sustained period of negotiation and deliberation as intensive as the political negotiation. In other words, these issues and how the intentions are translated into practice, have to move centre stage.

The progress so far – limited as it is – provides the basis for doing more. When such change has happened, it has had an effect. The incremental steps now have to be transformed into a complete and rounded strategy that locks in the politics.

If we do this, I am confident we can resolve this issue. And, in truth, there is no option but to resolve it.

There is occasionally a resentment when people speak of the cardinal importance of the Israel – Palestine issue. The feeling is – on both sides – that by elevating its significance, we place a resolution of it at such a level, that the proper interests of the parties may get sacrificed in the rush to "do the deal."

This feeling is especially raw for many Israelis. They worry that because the Palestinian cause matters so deeply to so many Muslims, Israel's legitimate interests are trampled upon, in the unswerving desire to placate Muslim opinion.

I should make one thing clear: nothing should ever be done to put Israel's security at risk. Indeed, I would go further: Israel's security matters profoundly to our own. Sacrificing it would not just be wrong, but short-sighted in the extreme.

But resolving the issue on terms consistent with Israel's security, is indeed Israel's wish. And that too is undeniably in our interests, as well as, of course, in the interests of the Palestinians and the Muslim world.

The Israel-Palestine dispute did not cause the extremist affliction we face, based on a perversion of the proper faith of Islam. It would exist if Israel didn't. But its resolution can be an essential part of consigning that affliction to the oblivion it deserves.

I believed this before I became the Quartet Representative. I believe it even more strongly now.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians would release forces of modernisation across the region. It would pin back the forces of reaction. It does not inhabit an entirely separate sphere from issues like Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or any of the other troubled parts of that region which crowd in our consciousness and compete for our attention. It is integral to resolving them too.

For there is in truth one struggle with many dimensions, between those who believe in peaceful co-existence, and those who find fulfilment in conflict. It links the terrorists in Mumbai with the suicide bombs in Tel Aviv. It has to be confronted and beaten. It cannot be beaten by military means alone. It is as much the force of ideas as the force of arms that will secure our future.

And the principal idea is that people of different faiths, cultures and creeds can live together peacefully. Among vast swathes of the world, peace between Israel and Palestine would possess defining symbolic power. That is why it matters.

That is why it must be done. For the sake of Israel; for the Palestinian people; and for the world. It can be done, of that I am sure. The challenge now is to do it.