By Ben White
As soon as it was confirmed that Tony Blair would be taking up the role of special envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the Quartet (USA, EU, UN and Russia), typical reactions ranged from skepticism to mockery. However, the choice of Blair is only incredible if one takes at face value the stated function and intent of the Quartet regarding the ‘peace process’. Most mainstream commentators, therefore, have missed a trick.
Some have coyly hinted at the fact that Blair will be an ‘unpopular’ or ‘controversial’ choice of envoy in the Middle East (without going into any of the gruesome details). Others have gone further, highlighting specific Blair policies in the Middle East and concluding that the Quartet could have made a better selection. Common amongst all these approaches though is that the Quartet’s intentions are placed beyond serious critique. On closer inspection, the Quartet and Blair are a perfect match for each other, having been consistently on the same wavelength both in terms of practical strategies and the corresponding informing ideology.
Perhaps the most far-reaching policy that both Blair and the Quartet have enthusiastically implemented is the continued boycott of the Hamas-majority Palestinian government, initiated shortly after the PLC elections had passed off successfully. The spectacle of the Quartet simultaneously urging the Palestinians to build a healthy democracy (and in fact, making that a prerequisite for ‘earning’ the right to self-determination), yet also boycotting the elected government, has been unsightly enough to draw flak from diverse quarters. UN Human Rights monitor John Dugard, a man with a track record in highlighting Israeli human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories, wrote that “Palestinians understandably find it difficult to comprehend the response of the Quartet and many Western States to the Palestinian elections”. While it is Israel that violates UN Resolutions and the ICJ’s ruling on the Separation Barrier, it is the Palestinian people who “have been subjected to possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times”1. Similarly, Oxfam – a charity not known for political radicalism – released a statement just over a year after the PLC elections that, with dry understatement, described how “the Quartet’s decision to withhold funds from the elected Authority has convinced many Palestinians that the Quartet is not genuinely committed to democracy in the Middle East”2.
The boycott was based on Hamas’ refusal to accept three ‘conditions’ that emerged in a consensus uniting Israel and the Quartet; renounce violence, recognise Israel’s ‘right to exist’, and abide by previous PA-Israel agreements. While each is significant in its own right, the call for non-violence was particularly striking in its embrace of the power politics of colonialism. In the immediate aftermath of the election results, the Quartet released a statement in which they ‘reiterated’ their view that “there is a fundamental contradiction between armed group and militia activities and the building of a democratic state. A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel’s right to exist, and disarm, as outlined in the Roadmap”3. Blair soon joined in, stressing the importance for Hamas “to understand that there comes a point – and that point is now following that strong showing – where they have to decide between a path of democracy or a path of violence”4.
What is being claimed here is that there is an inherent contradiction between democracy and violence, which is particularly odd coming from a man who as Prime Minister has frequently gone to war with the publicly stated intention of ‘defending’ democracy and ‘democratic values’ or creating the space for their emergence (see official rhetoric for the military deployments in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq). Likewise, the Quartet members themselves would all affirm their commitment to democratic government, yet also the right to use violence in a variety of situations by no means limited to self-defence (e.g. ‘pre-emptive strikes’, ‘humanitarian intervention’). Thus what actually unites Blair and the Quartet is not a belief in the incompatibility of violence and democracy, but rather in the illegitimacy of the violence of the colonised contrasted with the ‘understandable’ and even redemptive violence of the coloniser.
The right to armed resistance under occupation is part of international law, while Israel wields one of the most formidable and modernized military forces in the world. As Albert Memmi wrote, in ‘The Colonizer and the Colonized‘: “While it is pardonable for the colonizer to have his little arsenals, the discovery of even a rusty weapon among the colonized is cause for immediate punishment”. Moreover, the patronising nature of the request is made stark when you reverse it – can one imagine the Palestinians ‘demanding’ that Israel disbands its army, and renders itself defenceless?5
Or even more pertinently perhaps – can one imagine the Quartet making that same demand of Israel?
Another foundational and practical approach to the conflict, common to both the Quartet and Blair, is the emphasis on developing the Palestinian economy, governmental institutions, and so-called ‘state-building’ in the Occupied Territories. The Quartet’s official announcement of Blair’s appointment made it clear that his remit was to “help Palestinians as they build the institutions and economy of a viable state”, including the following specific responsibilities:
Mobilise international assistance to the Palestinians, working closely with donors and existing coordination bodies.
Help to identify, and secure appropriate international support in addressing, the institutional governance needs of the Palestinian state, focusing as a matter of urgency on the rule of law.
Develop plans to promote Palestinian economic development, including private sector partnerships, building on previously agreed frameworks, especially concerning access and movement.6
Since the Quartet’s goal is “the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security”, it would be reasonable to assume that Blair’s role is to tackle what is perceived to be the main obstacles to reaching this ultimate objective. But gone is any mention of the Israeli occupation and colonisation policies. What is apparently holding back the possibility of progress in the ‘peace process’ and hops for an overall settlement is not Israel’s flouting of international law, but a stagnant Palestinian economy, political ‘extremism’ as opposed to ‘moderation’, and the absence of a state infrastructure.
Tony Blair exemplified this approach back in March 2005, as he opened a conference much-heralded at the time on Palestinian ‘reform’. After condemning a recent suicide bombing – the real threat to the ‘peace process’ – he continued:
We all know that one element of viability is territory and that is obviously something that has to be negotiated in the negotiations leading to a final settlement. But the other aspects of viability for any state are in the institutions of that state; how it operates, how it works, its democracy, its economy, it’s ability to conduct and perform its own security adequately and properly.”7
Here then is a tacit acknowledgement that for the Palestinians – stateless, occupied, and exiled – “territory” will be an issue (to put it mildly) of some relevance in any ‘final settlement’. Crucially, however, it is rendered an almost periphery issue, something to be eventually “negotiated” (the Oslo strategy), an issue quickly abrogated by the ‘but’ clause of reform. It is the development-isation of the Palestinian question, a strategy that took roots during the 1990s and blossomed as the Second Intifada lost momentum in the last few years.
The typical argument has been that there can be no progress in negotiations or concessions until the Palestinians, one, ‘reform’ their institutions and purge the corruption from the PA, and two, ‘rein in the militants’. The implications of these demands have almost been rendered irrelevant by the spirit in which they are repeated – to distract from the main issues of occupation and rapacious land confiscation. ‘Reform’ and disarmament became the tests the Palestinians are intended to fail, foiling even feeble efforts at energizing negotiations.8
Finally, there has also been a third key element common to the policies of the Quartet and the British government under Blair, building on the boycott of Hamas and the focus on Palestinian ‘reform’ – paying lip service to a two state solution. Blair has certainly not been shy to repeat the same slogan time and time again: “Israel and Palestine – two peoples and two religions can live side by side in peace”, “two states living side by side in peace”, “the only hope is two states living side by side in peace”, “an independent, viable and democratic Palestinian state side by side with the state of Israel”, “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in an enduring peace”9. Wearying as that may be, the Quartet have been singing from the same song sheet, urging that a negotiated settlement “will result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours”10.
Well, so what? Is this not the international consensus? That depends, of course, on who is permitted to make up this ‘consensus’, but there is something more fundamental at stake here. In fact, this takes us back to the post-elections boycott – recall that one of the conditions for the boycott to be lifted is for Hamas to ‘recognise Israel’s right to exist’. The ‘two state solution’ then, as voiced by the Quartet and Tony Blair, requires as its corollary the negation of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return and the legitimisation of their individual and collective dispossession. It is a refusal to challenge the legitimacy of an ethno-supremacist state that denies not only the right of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants to equal status in their homeland, but even more fundamentally to their right of residence there. It is an erasure from history of the expulsions and bulldozing that enabled the Zionists to carve out a Jewish state in Palestine. Most shamelessly of all, the Palestinians are told by the Quartet and Blair (and many others) that “they must recognize the ‘rightness’ of the catastrophe that befell them”11:
To demand that Palestinians recognize "Israel’s right to exist" is to demand that a people who have been treated as subhumans unworthy of basic human rights publicly proclaim that they are subhumans. It would imply Palestinians’ acceptance that they deserve what has been done and continues to be done to them. Even 19th-century US governments did not require the surviving native Americans to publicly proclaim the "rightness" of their ethnic cleansing by European colonists as a condition precedent to even discussing what sort of land reservation they might receive.12
In other words, the choice of Blair, when seen in the light of the Quartet’s position towards the question of Palestine, is eminently sensible. The ex-Prime Minister’s remit is a logical extension of his Middle East policies while in office. The Quartet and their new envoy share the same vision for the ‘peace process’: provide humanitarian assistance to the Israeli occupation, promote a Palestinian elite that will do their paymasters’ bidding, and confirm the refugees’ permanent dispossession and exile. In other words, nothing short of the complete negation of Palestinian political and human rights.
1 UN rights expert paints dire picture of situation in Occupied Palestinian Territory
Report, UN News, 22 June 2006 – http://electronicintifada.net/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/12/4839
2 Oxfam press release, 21 Feb 2007 – www.oxfam.org.uk/applications/blogs/pressoffice/2007/02/middle_east_quartet_should_end.html
5 ‘Misbehaving natives’, BenWhite.org.uk/blog – www.benwhite.org.uk/blog/?p=22
8 Ben White, ‘Reform as resistance’, Palestine Chronicle, 30 Jan 2006 – www.benwhite.org.uk/articles.php?id=38
11 ‘Eggs fail to recognise omelette’s right to exist’, Lawrence of Cyberia, 6/3/07 – http://lawrenceofcyberia.blogs.com/news/2007/03/eggs_fail_to_re.html
12 ‘What Israel’s right to exist means to Palestinians’, John Whitbeck, Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/07 – www.csmonitor.com/2007/0202/p09s02-coop.html