Tony Blair and the business of covering up war crimes

Tony Blair on a visit to Israel’s wall in Qalqiliya in the occupied West Bank, August 2009. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

On 7 October 2009, Tony Blair gave a lecture at a New York university. In responding to an unexpectedly direct student question, he publicly joined, for the first time, the US and Israeli Zionist consensus rejecting the Goldstone report.

On 27 June 2007, Blair left his job as UK prime minister under the cloud of the war on Iraq that he had concocted with former US President George W. Bush. Just hours later, he assumed his new position as the Special Envoy to the Mideast Quartet (EU, Russia, UN, US). He had long been a Zionist and a member of Labor Friends of Israel, and he received heartfelt farewells-and-hellos from Ehud Olmert (“A true friend of the State of Israel”) and Tzipi Livni (“a very-well appreciated figure in Israel”). Palestinians living under Israeli occupation did not find this a very a promising development.

Though Blair spends only a week a month in the Middle East, he has managed to keep busy. He maintains a grueling, globe-trotting schedule of lectures, for which he receives up to $500,000. On top of this, he has been at work on his memoirs, for which he received a $7.3 million advance. Consulting work brought him $3.2 million (including a bonus) from J. P. Morgan Chase and $800,000 from Zurich Financial Services. By October 2008, he had amassed at least $19 million, far outdistancing even the enterprising Bill Clinton. He is thought to be the highest paid public speaker in the world.

Blair’s schedule has caused some concern in the Middle East. His office insists that his “current role in the Middle East takes up the largest proportion of his time,” but in late 2008, a Western diplomat in Jerusalem wondered if “his overstretchedness has produced a tactical blunder,” while a UN official in Jerusalem said, “There is a general sense that he is not around” (“Lectures see Tony Blair earnings jump over #12,” The Times, 29 October 2008). In September 2008, a coalition of Mideast aid groups accused the Quartet of “losing its grip,” adding that its “failings could have serious ramifications for implementing international law around the globe” (“Aid groups: Tony Blair faces imminent failure in Middle East,” The Times, 25 September 2008).

On 27 December 2008, Israel launched the Gaza massacre, which it dubbed “Operation Cast Lead.” Eight days later, when asked about Blair’s reaction, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown explained, “Tony’s on holiday at the moment.” While Blair found time to attend a private opening of the new Armani store in Knightsbridge, he found none to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, thus recalling his silence during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon (“As Gaza is torn apart by war, where is Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair? He’s been on holiday,” Daily Mail, 5 January 2009). In early January, Blair flew to Israel, but he did not condemn the Israeli assault. In February 2009, while Palestinians in Gaza were still digging themselves out and mourning their dead, he accepted a $1 million prize from Tel Aviv University as the “Laureate for the Present Time Dimension in the field of Leadership” (Press release, 2009 Dan David Prize, 17 February 2009).

On 1 March 2009, he finally made it to Gaza. He conceded “a huge amount of damage” and the deaths of “large numbers of civilians,” but rejected as “not very sensible” any discussion of disproportionality in Israel’s attacks (“Blair shocked at devastation on first Gaza visit as envoy,” The Scotsman, 2 March 2009). Blair did not meet with Hamas leaders, and his visit to Gaza lasted only a few hours, for he had to make a pilgrimage to Sderot, the Gilad Shalit of western Negev settlements (“Middle East envoy Tony Blair in Gaza for first time,” The Independent, 1 March 2009). In June, he visited Gaza a second time and, as proof of his deep humanitarian instincts, went so far as to say that the Palestinians were in a “tough situation” (“Former British PM Blair Visits Gaza Strip,” Voice of America News, 15 June 2009).

On 15 September 2009, the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, issued its 575-page report entitled “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories.” For three weeks after the Goldstone report’s publication, Blair said nothing about it in public. Then, on 7 October 2009, he spoke at SUNY Buffalo (UB), where I teach, to a huge audience in the university’s Distinguished Speakers Series. I didn’t hear the lecture, for I was outside in a free speech corral (the first one to have appeared on my campus) with a group protesting Blair’s invitation and his enormous lecture fee of $150,000, as confirmed to me by his exclusive agent, the Washington Speakers Bureau.

We also protested the censorship of questions. For several years now, by requiring that all questions to them be pre-submitted and approved, the UB administration has protected from direct questioning those of our Distinguished Speakers whose resumes include war crimes in the Balkans and West Asia. This time, they packaged the censorship as “The Blair Student Question Contest”: students pre-submitted questions for review, and the administration invited the lucky winners up on the podium to deliver their approved questions in person. When questioned about the practice, Dennis R. Black, UB Vice President of Students and emcee for the evening, told The Buffalo News that “there was no attempt at censorship and that the questions were merely moderated” — an interesting distinction.

An audio version of the whole speech is available on the website of UB’s public radio station (“UB Distinguished Speaker Series - Tony Blair,” WBFO, 13 October 2009). It consists primarily of earnest platitudes and whimsical anecdotes, concluding, incredibly enough, with a story about a comical horse-betting Irishman, rendered in Blair’s very best music-hall brogue. But things took a change for the better in the question-and-answer period. Nicolas Kabat, a UB political science major, co-founder of UB Students for Justice in Palestine, and member of the Western New York Peace Center Palestine-Israel Committee, was one of the lucky contest winners because of the slow-pitch, painfully bland question he pre-submitted. But at the microphone, he asked a hard-edged question about Blair’s response to the Goldstone report, why he thinks the basic principles of international law are irrelevant to the Middle East peace process, and why the continuing siege on Gaza isn’t also harmful to that process.

A video of the five-minute Kabat-Blair exchange is available on YouTube. I’m told by the UB student who recorded it that UB Vice President for Students Dennis Black (visible at the end of the clip) heard Kabat’s unapproved question with vein-popping disbelief. Later, Director of UB Special Events William Regan wrote Kabat to chastise him for departing from the approved question, saying that he had “violated a trust that needs to exist for a contest like this to function properly.” In a delightful Freudian slip, he added that “We are very disappointed with your ethical conduct.” There is something exquisite about the righteous indignation of a befuddled censor.

Blair seemed at first to be thrown off balance by an actual, uncensored question. Though he eventually found his feet and began to concoct his classic blend of choirboy sanctimony and Machiavellian misdirection, he also seemed to wander unwittingly into a public rejection of the Goldstone report. Like most of its opponents, he failed to find fault with a single one of its factual claims but moved immediately into nostrums and whinging. Despite Kabat’s clear statement that the report condemned both Palestinian armed groups and Israel, Blair brightly observed that “you have given one view, and the trouble is that there is another view. … And one of the things you learn about conflicts like this … is that you never solve these conflicts by taking one view and forgetting about the other. … And rocket attacks came out of Gaza on Israeli towns. Now those rocket attacks have got to stop as well.”

Like Benjamin Netanyahu in his recent speech to the UN, Blair failed to note the report’s forthright and detailed chronicle and condemnation of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks, and its statement that they had all but ended during the lull of June-November 2008 (31-33, 71-82, 449-74). In fact, Hamas ceased all of its attacks and cracked down on firings by other groups, reducing them by 97 percent and Israeli casualties by 100 percent. This Hamas peace offensive was just too much for Israel to bear, so on 4 November 2008, a squad of Israeli commandos infiltrated Gaza and killed six Hamas soldiers, thus shattering the lull (78).

Blair also suggests that we must reject the Goldstone report as hopelessly partisan because it ignores provocations by Hamas: “The Israeli soldier that is kidnapped at the moment, Gilad Shalit, should be released.” The problem here is that the report actually exhibits the usual disproportionate and tacitly racist concern for this lone Israeli detainee (on pages 25, 28, 57, 66, 288, 289, 291, 304, 371-73, 412, 415, 418, 486, 541, 551), though unlike Blair, it also discusses the 8,100 detained Palestinian men, women and children (27-29, 401-23).

The center of Blair’s rejection of the Goldstone report, however, lay in his dismissal of international law as such. He genuflected briefly toward it, but added that we’ll never get anywhere through “a debate over a report that is hotly supported on one side, hotly and deeply contested on the other.” In other words, international law is fine until Israel disagrees with it, at which point we should abandon it. How, then, will the conflict be resolved? Israel needs “security” and the Palestinians need an “independent state,” but first, there needs to be “an end to violence,” which, of course, never includes the root violence of occupation. And most of all, we must “understand the pain on either side, get them to understand that they are not alone in their pain.”

In short, Blair guides us gently away from the fussy, contentious, legalistic and impractical world of international law, which makes us throw our hands up in the air, Rashomon-style, and toward that warm and empathetic place where we feel each other’s pain. This empathetic pain seems to be quite distinct from and finer than the everyday pain experienced by mere Palestinians in Gaza, as they bleed and die in particular places. In the classic mode of conservative ideologists, Blair insists that, if we ever hope to change social institutions, we must first change the human heart.

For all its faults, the Goldstone report never descends to this sort of vacuous moral idiocy. It combines an analysis of massive violations of international law with a chronicle of the human pain those violations have caused: the suffering of people in Gaza crushed in their homes beneath debris (239), wounded and denied medical care (232-33, 377), shot down while waving white flags (199-203), seared by white phosphorus (533), and left to sicken and die in a state of permanent siege (9-10, 22-25, 95-100, 335-71). And the ongoing reality of war crimes arising from an illegal military occupation pervades the report.

But of course, this is Tony Blair, so there’s a cheery upside to things, too, thanks to the Palestinian Authority’s neoliberal development projects and its West Bank security gang: “And just to tell you some good news out of Israel and Palestine this week. … When I first became the Envoy … I couldn’t have gone to a city like Jenin or Nablus on the West Bank. Today, I go to Jenin or Nablus, where they opened a hotel in Nablus just the other day. I go to places like Qalqilyah, I go to Hebron, I go to Jericho, Ramallah obviously. In other words, I can go around the West Bank.”

Who could ask for anything more?

Jim Holstun teaches world literature and Marxism at SUNY Buffalo. He has previously published“Nonie Darwish and the el-Bureij massacre” and (with Joanna Tinker) “Israel’s fabricated rocket crisis” for The Electronic Intifada. He can be reached at jamesholstun A T hotmail D O T com.