There was one big question left unanswered when Tony Blair spoke last Monday evening at the opening of American Jewish University’s (AJU) 2007 lecture series.
A day after he stepped down as the British Prime Minister on June 27, 2007, Blair immediately became the Middle East envoy working on behalf of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together on a peace deal.
Since then, he has been meeting with all sides in the conflict, and logging more miles lining up support from various Middle Eastern and European leaders. Blair told the near-capacity crowd at the 6,000-seat Gibson Auditorium at Universal Studios that just before touching down in Los Angeles, he had been in Oman, Jerusalem, London and Paris.
“It was a week that was rather typical of the weeks I spend now,” he said.
The message was he’s trying, really trying.
But the 64,000 shekel (or dinar) question is this: What, oh what, makes him think he will succeed?
Google doesn’t have enough computers to store the names of all the “Special Mideast Envoys” sent out on the road to Jerusalem to bring peace to the Holy Land. My instant recall begins with Count Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish diplomat whom the United Nations chose as its first official mediator to bring the Arab and Jewish sides together in pre-state Palestine. On Sept. 17, 1948, the Jewish terrorist Lehi group gunned Bernadotte down in Jerusalem.
As the Monday evening appearance progressed, I tried to divine clues — hope, really — that Blair would be a bit more successful.
There is the force of his personality, for one. Not since former President Bill Clinton kicked off the AJU Lecture series six years ago has a series speaker displaying so much natural talent, humor, power and charisma stood at the podium. (True, Blair had less sex appeal, but he is, after all, English.)
Blair’s speech, in fact, echoed many of the points Clinton’s made about the challenges we face in the world: terrorism, poverty, global warming, trade and immigration. And his prescription to the world facing these ills was likewise Clintonesque. “Globalization is a fact,” he said, “but the values that guide us in facing it are a choice.”
In facing these crises, Blair called for a global perspective: “The key thing is that just as these problems arise from our interdependent world, so the solutions can’t come from any one nation or favor any one nation.”
That point of view makes sense for a globe-trotting Mideast envoy, but will it bring him any more success where so many have failed?
He is, on the plus side, a realist. Terrorism linked to a radical Islamic ideology is part of what Blair called, “a fundamental struggle going on.” On the one hand, the world has to give it no sanction, make no excuses for it.
“If the president of Iran says he wants to wipe Israel off the map, we have to take it seriously,” Blair said. “If this were being said about any other country, people would be saying, Now let’s think about that….”
Likewise, he understands that Israel can’t be expected to compromise with terror.
“You need to have a tough stand, because if you do, people are less likely to put your strength to the test,” he said.
For Israelis, the primary issue is security. “Even though we have a peace process, they’re firing rockets from Gaza to Sderot,” he said. “Why are they doing it? They don’t want us to succeed.”
For the Palestinians, Blair said, the issue is a viable state, free of the burdens of occupation. He said he is convinced that this is what the majority of Palestinians and Israelis want. Blair’s Israel defense received loud applause. His assertion that Palestinians want peace, on the other hand, landed with a thud: afterward, many audience members dismissed the idea of a settlement outright.
Blair has — also on the plus side — a track record for dealing with intractable historical problems. In 1998, he shepherded the Good Friday Agreements that brought together the antagonists in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants are not Jews and Muslims — fine op-ed pieces can and have been written on the differences and similarities — but the basic storyline here is one of hard work and faith.
“That is something people said could not be done,” Blair said. “But we believed it, and we were relentlessly optimistic.”
That, I suppose, is the final impressive quality Blair displayed Monday night. After serving 10 years as prime minister, he is still, at the ripe age of 53, energetic and upbeat, “relentlessly optimistic.” Perhaps his legacy will be less Count Bernadotte and more Ralph Bunche, the African American diplomat who took over as Chief U.N. Mediator after Bernadotte was killed and successfully concluded the task with the signing of the 1949 Armistice Agreements, work for which he received the Noble Peace Prize.
“If you want to get across an idea,” Bunche once said, “wrap it up in person.”
Maybe Tony Blair is that person. If only American Jews shared his optimism.