- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008

MIDEAST OPTIMIST

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his characteristic optimism Wednesday, as he described his new role as an international envoy for Middle East peace.

“There is plenty to despair of, but there are also slender and real grounds for hope,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, recounting his observations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since his appointment in June 2007 by the so-called Middle East Quartet - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

He recalled the comments by Harold Macmillan, who was Britain’s prime minister during the 1967 Middle East war.

When a reporter asked Mr. Macmillan for his opinion on the Middle East problem, the British statesman replied, “There is no problem in the Middle East. … Sir, a problem is something with a solution. There is no solution to the Middle East. Therefore, it can’t be a problem.”

Mr. Blair said he takes the opposite position.

“The conflict can be solved, and it must be,” he said, adding that six decades of Middle East diplomacy has been “littered with [peace] initiatives … and failed negotiations, but there have been impressive gains.”

He listed the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel and the Arab League peace plan that promises diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for a withdrawal to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. President-elect Barack Obama is prepared to endorse the plan, according to several news reports.

Mr. Blair also applauded President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for their Middle East diplomacy, saying that “they deserve much credit.” In 2001, Mr. Bush endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state.

During his 17 months as Middle East envoy, Mr. Blair said he has “listened to the sensibilities of Israelis and the sensibilities of Palestinians” and concluded that the gap between them is not that “unbridgeable.”

Mr. Blair noted there are “two realities” under which Israelis and Palestinians live. Israelis live under the constant threat of terrorist attacks, while Palestinians complain of humiliation under Israeli occupation on the West Bank.

“The Palestinian reality is harsh, oppressive and acute,” he said. “Their land is occupied. They are regulated, searched. They are not free to move. … They see settlements dug deep into what would be their state.”

Mr. Blair criticized the division among Palestinians, with the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip in the hands of Hamas, which the United States and the European Union condemn as terrorist.

“One thing is for sure,” he said. “We cannot afford the status quo in Gaza for another year. There can be only one Palestinian state.”

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