"In the conversations I’ve had with the Israeli Prime Minister there is now, in principle, agreement for Israel to allow goods in" Tony Blair told reporters on Monday. And like magic, an official Israeli statement today announced the ‘easing’ of the Gaza blockade. After three years of lucrative ambassadorial work, the man best known for invading Iraq on doctored evidence is back in the big time. As pressure mounts on Netanyahu’s government to end the illegal blockade on Gaza following the flotilla massacre, the former PM has been asked to step up his Hasbara duties.
Today’s announcement confirmed that Israel will "liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza and expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision". Specific goods were not specified, but it is believed a severely limited quantity of foodstuffs and education materials will be taken off the banned list. The UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign derided the "so called easing of the blockade as a sham designed to divert the world’s attention from the inhumane blockade".
Francis Beckett, author of the biography "The Survivor: Tony Blair in Peace and War" sees Blair’s role as "translator for the Israeli government, serving for Israel’s benefit. Netanyahu is in a hole. Politically he cant afford to give in to foreign pressure, but he has to take some action. Blair is his escape route."
Beckett believes Blair is at heart a pragmatist and his politics have always tracked the changing dynamics of American presidencies. "He always knew to ask ‘how high’ when the President told him to jump. As a result he became far more right-wing when Bush replaced Clinton, which marked the end of his connection with any old Labour ideals."
Blair was appointed as the Quartet’s Envoy to the Middle East on January 27, 2007, the same day he retired as Prime Minster. It came about through the lobbying of former President George W. Bush and Beckett believes at the time it was an "honorific" position, devoid of meaningful responsibility, adding "now that Obama is in charge he is being pressured to be more active".
The appointment, with a brief to build Palestinian institutions, was met with surprise and dismay. "Like most people, I thought it was a very odd appointment." says Beckett, "the job requires someone trusted by both sides and while he is certainly trusted by Israelis, he is not by Palestinians. A serious peace envoy would have to be less damaged."
There are obvious reasons for distrust. The war over WMDs in Iraq, supported by Israel but largely opposed by the British public and Labour party, has killed over 100,000 civilians to date. In 2006, Blair refused to support a UN resolution for a ceasefire during Israel’s Lebanon offensive, giving them every chance to destroy Hezbollah. In Beckett’s words, Blair has "no feeling for Muslims. Aside from shuttle diplomacy before Iraq, persuading Saudi Arabians to co-operate, he has had practically no relations with Arab leaders."
While international leaders loudly condemned the bloody assault on the Mavi Marmara, Blair’s voice struck a different note: "When it comes to security, I am one hundred percent on Israel’s side", he said a few days after the tragedy. He has since gone on record supporting Israel’s right to an internal investigation.
During three years as the Quartet’s Envoy Blair has been a rare sighting in the occupied territories. He has taken two brief trips to Gaza, the first in March 2009, and visited troubled Hebron just long enough to have "terrorist" chants directed at him.
That Blair has combined his role with so many other positions, including the ‘Africa Governance Initiative’, multiple directorships and controversially the ‘Tony Blair Faith Foundation’, has led to criticism that he lacks commitment. Oxford professor Avi Shlaim memorably characterised him as "a man who wears too many hats".
It is believed that Blair has amassed a personal fortune in excess of £20 million since leaving office, mainly through middle east contacts established through his envoy position. In 2009 he made in excess of £5million advising the governments of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and is also an ambassador of investment bank JP Morgan in the Middle East.
Beckett sees this as highly unusual behaviour from a former Prime Minister. "Most (ex-PMs) go into retirement quietly, they receive a pension of over £100,000 and live comfortably on that. But because Blair mixes with the super-rich he feels the need to scrabble for money in a dreadfully undignified way." Beckett goes on to detail Blair’s endorsement trips to the USA, during which Americans would line up to shake his hand for a set tariff of over $1000.
Controversy over religion has dogged the former PM since his resignation and prompt conversion to Catholicism. A public admission that he had "talked to God" before invading Iraq plainly illustrates the extent to which faith has informed his politics. Indeed Blair’s ‘Faith Foundation’, a predominantly Christian coalition of religious leaders has attracted severe criticism, with even high profile Catholic leaders called it a "messianic plan for world domination". His active participation in the ‘Labour Friends of Israel’ society is another clue to his deeply held partisanship in relation to Middle-Eastern politics, which Shlaim commented "was probably considered a qualification" for his position.
But while avarice and pragmatism have superseded any ideals Blair possessed, members of his own family have frequently served to prick his conscience. His cousin Lauren Booth, a left-wing journalist and activist, was a passenger aboard the first flotilla in 2008 and has publicly criticised her brother-in law’s policies, saying he should be "ashamed" of the civilian deaths in Iraq and that his plans for Gaza would lead to "a slow, agonising death for Palestinians". Booth is also co-founder of ‘Aloha Palestine’, along with Ken O’ Keefe who was this week declared a terrorist by Israel. Beckett, who commissioned Booth for articles, confirms that "Lauren has been a dreadful embarrassment to the Blairs for years. In the middle of Blair’s premiership, a deal was made so that she would stop talking about him."
Today he is talk of the town once more, feted as the man who engineered progress on the world’s thorniest issue. But for anyone who has followed the series of disappointments that constitute his career, it is classic Blair. Support whoever is winning.
Kieron Monks is editor of the Palestine Monitor news website in Ramallah.