Buoyed by his success in securing the Northern Ireland peace agreement, British prime minister Tony Blair last month embarked on a five-day Middle Eastern tour in an attempt to revive the long-stalled “peace process.” Before he arrived in the region, hopes flickered that the prime minister would draw upon his well of “healing magic” and his country’s current position as the president of the European Union (EU) to nudge the process out of more than a year of stalemate. Yet, soon after he set out on his tour, it became clear that the stalemated “peace process” needed more than Mr. Blair’s personal charm to be resuscitated.
Blair’s maiden Middle East trip took him to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and the autonomous Palestinian territories. In remarks that he gave to the Egyptian daily al-Ahram on the eve of his arrival in Cairo, the first leg of his tour, Blair issued a warning that the peace process was in dire trouble. He added that: “We need to kick-start the process.” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ground to a halt in March 1997 amid Arab fury over the construction of a Jewish settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim in annexed East Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, throughout the discussions that he held with regional leaders, Blair did not offer anything new capable of breathing fresh life into the critically ill “peace process.” His deliberations focused on persuading Israeli and Palestinian leaders to attend an international conference scheduled to start in London on May 4. The conference will be chaired by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and will be attended by key players in the peace process, including US president Bill Clinton, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and head of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Yassir Arafat.
During a series of meetings that they held separately with Blair, both Arafat and Netanyahu told the British prime minister that they were ready to take part in the London talks. At a press conference Netanyahu announced: “I am prepared to go anywhere, at any time, specifically in the next month, to any location, and possibly to London to advance the process.”
For his part, Arafat, called for a clear role for the EU, a major financier of the autonomous Palestinian territories, in the London talks. “We are seeking a four-way meeting. Our position has always been that the European Union must have a vital, effective role in this peace process,” he told a news conference.
However, a senior Netanyahu aide, cabinet secretary Danny Naveh, bluntly told PNA officials not to pin “their hopes on others” to bring pressure to bear on the zionists. Israel has been cool about giving a mediation role for the EU, which it accuses of being pro-Palestinian, and prefers the more favourable US-sponsored Oslo process. Moreover, an Israeli cabinet statement issued on April 20 appeared to downgrade the significance of any talks. It revealed that the prime minister had informed his cabinet that there was a “possibility of meetings” between Israeli and Palestinian representatives to discuss the issues of opening a new airport and developing an industrial park in Ghazzah. The two projects were on Blair’s agenda for his talks with Arafat. They are among a host of outstanding commitments from interim agreements with the PNA on which Netanyahu is blocking progress in order to deprive the Palestinians from enjoying their economic benefits in case they were carried out.
What Arafat seems to have overlooked is the broader political context within which Blair’s shuttle Middle Eastern tour had taken place. Blair left no doubt that his mission was not independent but rather resolutely pro-American, and in turn pro-Israeli. As such, it was intended to inject momentum into a proposal put forward last March by the Clinton Administration to narrow wide differences between Netanyahu and Arafat over the scope of an Israeli troop redeployment from the West Bank. In this context, the British prime minister emphasized that he was careful not to do anything that “cuts across” American efforts to break the stalemate and accelerate moves toward a final settlement. Speaking to reporters on April 20 Blair candidly said: “We have made clear all the way through that the United States should be in the lead.”
US special envoy Dennis Ross failed last March to persuade Netanyahu to accept an American proposal that envisages a staged Israeli troop withdrawal from 13.1 percent of the West Bank in exchange for reciprocal Palestinian steps that include a crackdown on Islamic groups opposed to the Oslo process, an unequivocal abrogation of the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel, and a host of cooperative
Israeli-Palestinian security measures. Israel has rejected the US proposal as unacceptable.
Amid the heated preparations that are currently underway for the upcoming London conference, an atmosphere of pessimism over the prospects of reviving the Middle East “peace process” has already set in. Both Blair and Netanyahu have forewarned against expecting too much from the talks. If anything, such statements provided another ominous reminder of Netanyahu’s persistence in refusing to give in to demands to cede any more land to the Palestinians despite agreements that require Israel to withdraw from more of the West bank.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1998