Tony Blair: A true friend of Israel

Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, 10 September 2006. (Peter Macdiarmid/MaanImages/POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

“A true friend of the State of Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of his outgoing British counterpart Tony Blair. He was appointed this week as special envoy for the Middle East Quartet with a portfolio focused on Palestinian economic and political reform. “Tony Blair is a very well-appreciated figure in Israel,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. According to an Israeli government statement, Israel “will provide [him] with all necessary assistance in order for him to carry out his duties.”

It should not come as a surprise that Israeli government officials welcome Blair to his new job. Although he has long claimed to be interested in supporting justice for the Palestinians, Blair has an unremitting record of bias towards Israel. After George W. Bush, Blair is probably the most disliked and distrusted individual, among Palestinians as well as in the Arab world in general. This stems not only from his role in the Iraq war, but because he has swallowed the neoconservative agenda whole, becoming one of the leading proponents of a “clash of civilizations” between a supposedly enlightened West and a backward Islamic world.

All the language of Blair’s appointment describes the conflict not as one generated by Israeli occupation and colonialism — something a more courageous former leader Jimmy Carter has characterized as “apartheid” — but one of Palestinian failure, and a need for “institutional reform.” This suits Israel perfectly because Blair, with his fake pro-Palestinian tones, is actually helping Israel to blame the victim by changing the subject from the brutal Israeli military rule that makes normal Palestinian life imposssible.

Blair’s anti-Palestinian bias began early in his political career. During his time as prime minister, Blair regularly consulted a pro-Israel lobby group, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). He has been close to this group ever since he became a member of parliament fourteen years ago. In his speech to the LFI Annual Reception in September 2006, Blair said: “I have never actually found it hard to be friend of Israel, I am proud to be a friend of Israel.” [1]

One of Blair’s early supporters was Michael Levy, a staunch supporter of Israel’s policies against Palestinians, a former board member of the Jewish Agency and active in various Jewish charities in Britain. Levy began to support Blair’s private office from his own pocket. He has since raised millions of pounds for the Labour Party. Levy’s fundraising efforts for Blair eventually paid off when Blair became Prime Minister. First appointed an envoy by Tony Blair after the 1997 election, Levy — later nicknamed “Lord Cashpoint” — has helped to develop a strongly pro-Israel line from Blair’s office. [2] Three years later, Levy was appointed Tony Blair’s personal envoy to the Middle East. In July 2006 and again in January of this year, Levy was arrested in connection with allegations that Labour Party supporters were offered honors in return for loans and donations. With the resignation of Tony Blair today, Levy also steps down. Commenting on Levy’s resignation, Richard Spring, a Conservative spokesman on foreign affairs, told The Independent: “I welcome his departure. We have some of the most skilled and distinguished diplomats in the world and they have been humiliated and sidelined by Lord Levy’s antics in the Middle East. He has caused great embarrassment for this country.” [3]

Blair’s portfolio as Quartet envoy does not come as a surprise. In February 2005, Blair organized a one-day meeting between Palestinian leaders with senior officials from thirty countries. [4] The aim of the conference was to outline and support Palestinian political, financial and security reform. When Blair first spoke of hosting a conference in December 2004, Palestinian leaders hoped it would focus on political issues and the peace process. But there was little support for that from Israel and the US and Israel did not even attend the conference, demonstrating how little influence Blair had on Israel even as prime minister.

At the time Israeli forces invaded Nablus, Jenin and other Palestinian towns and villages during Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield” in April 2002, Tony Blair visited his closest ally George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas. “We agree that the Palestinian leadership must order an immediate and effective cease-fire and crackdown on terrorist networks,” Bush said. “And we agree that Israel should halt incursions in the Palestinian-controlled areas and begin to withdraw without delay from those cities it has recently occupied.” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later told the Americans he understood their desires for Israel to end its operations in the “territories.” A statement from Sharon’s office said the prime minister told Bush that Israel “is conscious of the American desire to see the operation ended quickly.” [5] His office also said the prime minister had pledged to “speed up” the offensive, not end it. Asked their plans if Israel does not withdraw, both leaders declined to address the issue. “I believe that Israel will heed the words of President Bush,” Blair said, “and will do so knowing that he speaks as a friend to Israel.”

In the summer of 2006, during the first week of August, just before he would meet Bush in Washington, cabinet ministers were pressing Blair to break with the policy of the American administration and publicly criticize Israel over the scale of death and destruction in Lebanon. A week earlier, Jack Straw, former Foreign Office Minister, said that while he “grieved for the innocent Israelis killed” he also mourned the “ten times as many innocent Lebanese men, women and children killed by Israeli fire.” Blair took the line of the US and two other Israel allies in the EU, Germany and the Netherlands, by refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire and waiting for an UN resolution. In an interview with Sky News that same week, Blair answered the question whether he was too close to the White House by stating, “I will never apologize for Britain being a strong ally of the US.” [6] Three months ago, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton told the BBC that the US deliberately resisted calls for a immediate ceasefire during the Lebanon war. He said the US decided to join efforts to end the conflict only when it was clear Israel’s campaign wasn’t working.

At the G8 summit in St. Petersburg as Israel’s war on Lebanon raged, Bush and Blair were caught on an open microphone talking about whether US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should head to the region, or whether Blair should go himself. [7] Blair said to Bush, “If she goes out, she’s got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can just go out and talk.”

That is exactly what Blair’s new function will be. He can just go out and talk. The Middle East Quartet — in the words of Alvaro de Soto, “a group of friends of the US” — wants Blair to operate according to the model of the previous envoy, James Wolfensohn. In his leaked End of Mission Report [8], De Soto, who was the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and envoy to the Quartet, wrote that Blair’s predecessor Wolfensohn was first introduced by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a US special envoy. “The terms of reference originally proposed would have given Wolfensohn a writ, essentially covering the entire peace process, much wider than the narrower one that emerged.” De Soto also noticed that Wolfensohn’s mission “began to run aground after his attempts to broker an agreement on access and movement were intercepted — some would say hijacked — at the last minute by the US envoys and ultimately Rice herself.” This does not look good for Tony Blair. Wolfensohn left the scene with “a more jaundiced view of Israel (and US) policies than he had upon entering.”

It is hard to escape the impression that Blair — despised at home and saddled with the weight of Iraq — is still seeking a way to salvage a “legacy.” Yet it is hard to imagine a person lesson suited to be a peace envoy to the Middle East.

In the meantime, one shouldn’t expect much from Britain’s new prime minister Gordon Brown. Britain, together with Germany and the Netherlands, traditionally supports Israel within European political debates. This will not change. Brown has not shown much interest in the issue and policy experts do not expect Britain to play a major role. Israel is content with not only Blair’s appointment as new Quartet special envoy but also the appointment of Simon McDonald, a former British ambassador to Israel, as Brown’s foreign policy advisor. Israeli officials see McDonald as “friend of Israel.” According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, McDonald has been considered one of the most influential foreign envoys posted to Israel, and one well-connected to Israeli decision-makers. Though the faces may change, Britian’s one-sided policy line remains the same.

Arjan El Fassed is a cofounder of The Electronic Intifada

[1] Speech by PM Tony Blair to LFI Annual Reception (26 September 2006).
[2] Michael Levy: Lord Cashpoint, Paul Vallely, The Independent (18 March 2006); Lord Levy: Labour’s fundraiser, BBC News (6 March 2007); “Blair’s chance to raise cash for Pounds 1m refund”, Andrew Pierce, The Times (18 November 1997); “British Jewish vote undergoes shift as Labor Party modifies Israel stance”, Richard Allen Green, Jewish Telegraphic Agency (8 May 2001); Blair’s meeting with Arafat served to disguise his support for Sharon and the Zionist project, John Pilger, New Statesman (14 January 2002).
[3] Lord Levy to quit envoy role when Blair stands down as PM, Colin Brown, The Independent (24 May 2007).
[4] London Meeting on Supporting the Palestinian Authority, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (1 March 2005).
[5] President Bush, Prime Minister Blair Hold Press Conference, Office of the Press Secretary (6 April 2002); Sharon Says He Will Expedite Israeli Military Offensive, CNN Breaking News (6 April 2002); Pull back, Bush orders Sharon, Peter Beaumont, The Observer (7 April 2002).
[6] Cabinet in open revolt over Blair’s Israel policy, The Observer (30 July 2006).
[7] Transcript: Bush and Blair’s unguarded chat, BBC News (18 July 2006)
[8] End of Mission Report (PDF) Alvaro de Soto (May 2007).