Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat- I could not meet the International Quartet Envoy Tony Blair at his headquarters in occupied Jerusalem, as Palestinian journalists and non-journalists in the West Bank like me are not allowed to enter the Holy City because of Israeli security and non-security reasons. Therefore, the interview was conducted at the headquarters of the Palestinian Council of Ministers in Ramallah at the request of Tony Blair.
Tony Blair has just finished a meeting with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and he came to the hall where the ministers meet with a group of his aides, who suggested that he should sit in Fayyad’s chair, and he did after a brief hesitation.
In the interview, Blair focused on the economy. When we tried to drag him into discussing the political dossier, he said it was the responsibility of the US Peace Envoy George Mitchell. However, Blair said that he understood the apprehensions of the Palestinians about not going into direct negotiations, and he pledged that within weeks he would allow the entry into Gaza Strip of many times the amount of goods allowed now. He added that lifting the siege completely indeed could be achieved, and it would be facilitated by reaching a Palestinian reconciliation agreement. Blair considers that the presence of Hamas together with a clear agreement that does not oppose peace would help the efforts exerted in the region.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As the International Quartet’s Special Envoy since 2007, what have you achieved so far?
[Blair] The most important thing is the support of the Palestinian Authority [PA] in building the institutions of the state from the bottom upward. Now the PA is working on security, and the situation has improved. Also the economy has improved a great deal; the growth rate was 10 percent last year, and unemployment (in the West Bank) was reduced from 24 percent to 14 percent. Also there is the change in policy that took place in Gaza, which is important. Therefore, the greatest thing I can point out is that we have been able to attract the donors to support the PA; these funds have been used to build the institutions of the Palestinian State.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You talk a great deal about issues related to the economy. The Palestinians believe that Israel have swamped you with economic issues at the expense of politics?
[Blair] I believe that there are three issues that have to proceed together and simultaneously. Economics, security, and politics cannot be separated from each other. As for the economy, we have to get into its details, such as lifting the barriers and building specific projects, because this as a whole helps in the political issues. I do not monitor the political dossier, because this is the specialty and mission of George Mitchell, but proceeding into the details of economy will help on the political track.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the Palestinians want the International Quartet to play a larger political role, and to exert more pressure. Do you intend on only focusing on the economy?
[Blair] I do not focus only on the economy. However, when we focus on the success of things such as the investment conference, or major projects, such as Al-Rawabi City (model city that is being built near Ramallah) about whose construction we are negotiating with the Israelis, this also is important and it helps.
We also work on the political track. We support and try to move into direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis in order to achieve the two-state solution. However, we have to work on both tracks together, i.e. building from the bottom to the top, and negotiations from the top to the bottom.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You say that the economy consolidates politics. However, we do not see this on the ground; with regard to peace, everything is stumbling?
[Blair] I hope, and I believe that we ought to engage in direct negotiations in order to achieve the two-state solution. I hope that this will materialize within the next few weeks. However, the issue is that the Palestinian State is not merely an agreement between the two sides on the issues of Jerusalem and the land, what takes place in this section of land also is important. If there is a strong economy, this will help in achieving statehood; if the Palestinians are undertaking security in a good way, and implementing the law, this will help in achieving statehood; and if they invest in health and education, this will help in building this state.
The negotiations, as a political process, are the responsibility of George Mitchell; however, through consolidating the economy we ought to create the suitable conditions through building from the bottom to the top. For instance, when the Palestinians organize an important event, such as the Palestinian investment conference, and though this a contract for granting mortgages to the Palestinians, and houses are built, this will give the people hope, and a clear view of the upcoming Palestinian State. My viewpoint is that economy alone is not sufficient, but it consolidates the political field.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You believe that direct negotiations should commence. The Palestinians say to the Israelis: First, halt the settlement activities, and let us start from where we ended last time. Therefore, in your opinion, who is hindering the negotiations?
[Blair] I believe that the negotiations ought to be credible. I understand the Palestinian stance, and the Palestinian apprehensions. The want to enter the negotiations in order to achieve an agreement; this also is what we want. The point I stress is that the negotiations ought to be credible, and we work toward making them credible.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Recently, you talked about a change in the “siege” policy on Gaza. However, they say that so far nothing has changed. Have you actually noticed a change?
[Blair] Is there change, the answer is yes. Is this change what we aspire for and need, the answer is no. Now the amounts of material that enter Gaza are many times what they used to be, whether in quality or quantity. However, we also have to double these amounts within the upcoming weeks. What we need is to support work there, and to support the projects of reconstruction, and the citizens’ freedom of movement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The PA and Hamas have rejected easing the siege, and want it lifted completely. In your opinion, is this possible, and when?
[Blair] It is possible that it would be lifted, with the exception of the siege on weapons and explosives. This is what we are working to achieve. It would be easy to lift the siege if there is a ground for reconciliation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Even if Hamas remains?
[Blair] If there are bases for reconciliation that support the peace process, the presence of Hamas will be helpful and will support all these efforts. There are three things for which we are working, and for which I personally work, namely to have credible direct negotiations, to have greater progress in the West Bank in this direction, and to have a major change in the existing situation in the Gaza Strip.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the direct negotiations, do you have clear information about whether the Palestinians will indeed go to these negotiations next month, despite their insistence so far on saying “No?”
[Blair] There no inside information about this question of yours. However, what I am sure about is that they want to go to direct negotiations, but they want to go on a credible basis that points toward the two-state solution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a plan, a new peace framework, or some upcoming US offer?
[Blair] There are deep discussions among the United States, the International Quartet, Israel, and the Palestinians about what can be done to turn these negotiations into credible ones. The Palestinians want the negotiations to be serious; if the negotiations are serious, they will go for it, but if they are endless talks for the sake of talking, they will not go. This is what we are working for now, namely to have serious and credible negotiations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Apart from that, there are plans to declare the state in the middle of next year. Do you agree with a unilateral declaration?
[Blair] We are trying to reach a Palestinian State through agreement. At this moment, we ought to support this direction; reaching such an agreement will make life better.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you not lost hope in the region and in reaching a solution?
[Blair] No, no, and I will remain optimistic. I love this region (jokingly) perhaps I am crazy!