Blair, Labour and Palestine: book review
If anyone is interested in what Blair is actually doing as Quartet envoy in Israel-Palestine, as opposed to what the Daily Mail and Guardian say he is doing, I recently recommended an excellent article by Toby Greene in the Jewish Chronicle.
I have since read Greene’s equally commendable book. It is a clear and balanced account of the longer history of British foreign policy on the region when Blair was Prime Minister, and particularly after 9/11.
If you are interested in what Blair’s policy actually was, as opposed to what the Ribbentrop-Molotov alliance of the right and the anti-left said it was, this is a superb account (unfortunately it is priced as an academic work).
The summary of Britain’s involvement in the creation of Israel, and the history of the Labour Party’s attitude to the conflict, is one of the best short accounts I have read. Greene then takes up the story of the Blair period with a good balance of documentary evidence and new interviews.
His research turns up some fine ironies, such as the occasion in 1999 when Blair spoke at a Muslim Council of Britain event, and Iqbal Sacranie, then the MCB leader, urged him to bring “the courageous, moral and humanitarian stand” he had taken on Kosovo to bear on “Palestine, Jammu and Kashmir and the continuing suffering of the civilian population of Iraq”. The gratitude of the MCB for Blair’s later efforts to secure a settlement in Palestine and to liberate Iraqis from Saddam Hussein was limited.
And Greene has some good interviews, including with Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff. Powell explains Blair’s relationship with the US and Israel, which attracted criticism for poodledom and worse:
It would have been completely out of character for him to try to bully [Ariel] Sharon or bully Bush into doing things and frankly I don’t think he would have got very far. Because Britain as Britain has very little locus in all of this … I always think that people criticising Tony like that would rather have had a different sort of leader. But a different sort of leader probably wouldn’t have made it into the Oval Office or Sharon’s office as often as Tony did. Did Tony have influence by cajoling? Yes he did. If he’d been a different sort of person hectoring and bullying would have had more influence? I doubt it.
An interesting tension in Blair’s policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict in the 2001-07 period is that he (a) insisted it was not a legitimate cause of 9/11 and al-Qa’ida terrorism, but (b) said that settling the Israel-Palestinian question would help to fight jihadist ideology.
Blair said of al-Qa’ida, “You’re not dealing with reasonable people; you’re not dealing with people you can negotiate with.” But he said of Palestinian terrorism that it arose out of “a genuine source of conflict, a political disagreement, that it is best to try to resolve by dialogue and negotiation”.
Greene again quotes Powell (who incidentally disagrees with his former boss and says the West should talk to al-Qa’ida), who said it was important “to remove the excuses that were used by people like al-Qa’ida”.
Greene is good at tracing the shift in Blair’s thinking over this period – which Blair acknowledges in his memoir – to a more “confrontationalist” position. And the section on how attitudes among Labour MPs to Israel-Palestine played a part in Blair’s downfall, in the Brownite “coup” of September 2006, is excellent.
Greene has an interview with James Purnell, Blair’s aide and later Blairite MP and Cabinet minister, who said:
You could make quite a good argument to say that without his support for the war in Lebanon he might have had an extra year of ministerial [office] – he may or he may not – but the coup would not have happened without Lebanon.
Purnell is contradicted by Stephen Twigg, another Blairite MP, who pointed out that many of the “plotters” were members of Labour Friends of Israel (Tom Watson, Sion Simon, Chris Bryant and Iain Wright):
I’m not sure I can think of anyone who became anti-Blair because of Lebanon … It obviously didn’t help him in what was going to be a very difficult time for him anyway. But do I think that the events of September ‘06 would have happened if the Lebanon war hadn’t happened? I think they probably still would have done.
Greene is hardly impartial. He is director of research at the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM), and lives in Israel. He also accepts that his book does not try to decide “whether any of the supposed linkages between the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and relations between the Islamic world and the West are correct”. But it is an impressively fair-minded treatment of an important question, in which Blair continues to play a role.Tagged in: book review, contemporary history, tony blair
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