Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Blair Optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Written by Matthew Kalman

BEIT JALLAH, WEST BANK - Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is now a Middle East peace envoy, said during a visit to the West Bank on Tuesday that he remains optimistic about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians despite a freeze in peace talks and increasingly bitter divisions between warring Palestinian factions.

Blair, who in June 2007 was appointed special representative of the Quartet—the UN, EU, U.S. and Russia—said he was encouraged by the performance of Palestinian security forces who have helped calm crime and violence in the West Bank, and called on Israelis and Palestinians to work together to help develop the Palestinian economy.

He also denounced Israel’s 400-mile-long security barrier as “a symbol of division.”
“The world in which we are living today is a world that, in the end, works through barriers coming down, through people learning to live with each other, through people from different cultures and different faiths, different races actually mixing together and working together,” Blair told the launch reception of, a rare joint Israeli-Palestinian high-tech startup.

Blair hailed, which gives users a free way to access their desktop and files from any computer with an Internet connection, as “an immensely creative exercise” and a model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. The company’s CEO, Zvi Schreiber, is an Israeli who is unable to visit his main office, which is in Palestinian-controlled Ramallah. The mixed Israeli-Palestinian staff has been forced to hold their meetings at a dusty service station in the desert on the road to Jericho – one of the few places where both sides have full access and also feel safe.

“Creativity knows no race or color or boundary,” Blair said. “Palestinians and Israelis are both highly creative people. Given the chance, they will make something of their lives, make something of the opportunities that are given them. This is an immensely creative exercise and I hope a very successful one in business terms and in what the company can do for the future.”

“It’s very poignant and extraordinary that we’re here in front of the separation barrier,” said Blair, referring to the 30-foot-high gray concrete slabs cutting through the biblical landscape. “The fact that Israelis and Palestinians have come together in order to found this project, this company, and the fact that they are doing it in this way and the fact that we are here in front of this symbol of division, but in the creation of something unifying, is I think a wonderful and heroic thing to achieve.”

Turning to the wider issues of peacemaking and Palestinian development, Blair said he is confident that most people on both sides wanted to see the region prosper despite the political obstacles.
“We need a political solution, but we also know that it’s not just about politics - that it’s also about people’s lives and it’s about economic development and it’s about business, too,” he said.

“Sometimes it can be very difficult with all the challenges to get some hope, and I’m an optimistic person by nature – you’ve kind of got to be when you’re employed by the Quartet on this deal – it’s always somewhat of a challenge for your general innate optimism,” said Blair. “When you leave aside all the politics and all the business to do with the Quartet and all the high-level negotiation and you just talk to people, you realize one very simple human truth, which is, in the end humanity makes progress when it learns from each other and to live with each other – and that is usually, and most often, the hope of all human beings from whatever walk of life and wherever they come from.”

But not all Palestinians share Blair’s optimistic outlook. Many of them have criticized Blair’s two years as Quartet representative for producing very little in concrete terms. Early in his tenure, he announced a series of economic projects for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but none of them have come to fruition.

Earlier on Tuesday, Blair visited Nablus, where EU and U.S.-trained Palestinian police and security services have been deployed in co-ordination with the Israeli army, who has removed more than 140 of their own security checkpoints to facilitate the movement of Palestinians around the West Bank.

"When the Palestinian people are given greater freedom, where there is security provided by the Palestinian people themselves, then the economy can grow and the people can get greater prosperity," Blair told reporters in Nablus, but officials involved in the security training told The Media Line that Blair was barely involved in the U.S. and EU training programs, which started before he arrived in the region.

The appointment in January of former Senator George Mitchell as U.S. President Barack Obama’s special Middle East envoy has created further confusion about Blair’s precise role. The hierarchy between Blair and Mitchell remains unclear.

Blair has concentrated his energies on trying to develop Palestinian governmental institutions and the economy, but for many his efforts have fallen short of expectations. In June 2008, Blair helped organize a Palestinian investment conference in Bethlehem that brought in more than 650 prospective investors from abroad and where several projects were announced.

Odeh Shehadeh, CEO of the Wassel logistics group in Ramallah that put the conference together, said all the projects announced in Bethlehem had actually been planned beforehand. He was dismissive about Blair’s contribution so far.

“What we’ve been seeing and hearing from the Quartet and Tony Blair is just talking, there is nothing materialized on the ground,” Shehadeh told The Media Line. “They just keep talking and they have never been able to facilitate or to solve any problem or to remove any restriction from the Israeli side, unfortunately. He’s just keeping doing workshops and meetings, submitting proposals, studies, projects, whatever and all of it just for nothing.”

“One of our Wassel Group companies, PalExpo, we were the event manager of that big conference. It was huge and big and great and the first of its type in Palestine, but for what? For bringing people together, not for making business or making investments. Because since that time, none of the projects that were announced or were decided at that time has materialized. In fact some of the projects that have materialized have been designed and planned and agreed upon even before that conference,” he said.

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