Following months of speculation, Tony Blair has finally announced he is standing down as the Quartet Representative to the Middle East after eight years in the post. It is tempting to ask whether anyone will notice. His time in the job has been marked by a stagnation of the Peace Process, a hardening of the position of increasingly belligerent Israeli governments and a growing distrust among the Palestinians. Tony Blair himself had long become an irrelevance in negotiations.
The truth is that Blair was hamstrung from the moment he took the job (immediately after he stood down as Prime Minister in 2007). He was never a ‘Peace Envoy’, although there was hope in some circles that he would bring the lessons of Northern Ireland to the Israel-Palestine conflict. His job was to represent the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia in a strictly limited development role, promoting economic growth and job creation in the West Bank and Gaza. His own website sets this out clearly: ‘The goal is to produce transformative economic change on the ground, underpinning the top-down political process.’
Blair’s office would claim that his time has not been entirely wasted. There have been small victories: the Palestinian economy has grown, road blocks have been lifted and restrictions on the movement of Palestinian workers eased. But there has always been a sneaking suspicion that the unpaid, part-time job just wasn’t quite grand enough for the former Prime Minister. His legacy in terms of the Peace Process is negligible. And yet, the job gave Blair an international platform, which allowed him to pronounce on global politics and, in particular, the rise of militant Islam. Nor can it have been unhelpful in building his international business empire. Now he has to face the world as a private citizen, albeit an extremely wealthy one.
I do not buy into the idea that Blair is an evil, neo-con Zionist war criminal intent on lining his pockets with the fruits of his ill-advised foreign adventures. For five months last year I worked for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation on a website to examine the relationship between faith and conflict. Although this was not an entirely happy experience, I believe Blair has been right to emphasise the importance of nurturing a better understanding of the role religion plays in conflicts around the world. He was one of the first politicians to bring international attention to the dangers of the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and he was right to do so.
As the history of the period is written, I suspect Blair’s time as Quartet Envoy will be judged every bit as harshly as his intervention in Iraq. But no one should take any pleasure from this ultimately tragic story. There is much that Tony Blair could have brought to the development of the Palestinian economy if he had spent time building the trust of the Palestinian people, wielding his considerable influence in Israel and forging an international consensus on a practical plan for the region. In the end, he just didn’t put the hours in.
When Blair left Downing Street, I was invited onto Newsnight to discuss his legacy. I made few friends on the left when I suggested there would be a Blair-shaped hole in British politics after his departure. After two devastating election defeats, the Labour Party is only just beginning to realise quite how big that hole has been. It is a sign of how far Blair’s star has fallen that there will be no Blair-shaped hole in the Middle East.
Martin Bright is the former editor of the Religion and Geopolitics website at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.