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Blair: Prospects for Mideast Peace Talks Hinge on Current Leaders

September 14, 2010 at 2:07 PM EDT
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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair talks to Margaret Warner about the resumption of Mideast peace talks in Egypt Tuesday, saying that if current leaders cannot succeed, an agreement may not be possible.

GWEN IFILL: Middle East peace talks resumed today in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over two sessions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

There was no sign the Israelis might extend a moratorium on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but U.S. envoy George Mitchell did — did say this.

GEORGE MITCHELL, special U.S. envoy for the Middle East: We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium, especially given that the talks are moving in a constructive direction. We know that this is a politically sensitive issue in Israel. And we have also called on President Abbas to take steps that help encourage and facilitate this process.

GWEN IFILL: The leaders move to Jerusalem for more discussions Wednesday. This morning, Margaret Warner spoke with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents the Middle East quartet of the U.N., the U.S., the European Union, and Russia. They met in New York, where Blair is promoting his political memoir, “A Journey.”

MARGARET WARNER: Tony Blair, thank you for joining us.

TONY BLAIR, former British prime minister: My pleasure, Margaret. Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to talk about your book, which is going to debut as number three on the New York Times bestseller list this Sunday, but first the news of the day, the Middle East peace talks resuming in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

After all these years, decades, really, of false starts and dashed expectations, do you think these talks have any better chance of succeeding?

TONY BLAIR: Yes, I do, in fact. And, sometimes, what happens in these processes, as with Northern Ireland, is that you can struggle for decades, not quite achieving it, and then it can come together.

And I think the reason it can come together here in the Middle East is because we have a one-off opportunity, frankly, with a region that is more concerned about Iran, really, that wants to take this poison that is generated by the Israel-Palestine dispute out of the politics of the Middle East.

And we have got to leaders and two peoples that want peace. Now, whether they can get there is the tough question. But they both want it. And there is an agreed, in a sense, outcome, which is the two-state solution. So, I think it is possible to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there is this immediate hurdle, the threatened end to the curb on settlement building. You spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu over this weekend. Do you see him putting anything on the table that you think the Palestinians can accept and stay at the negotiating table?

TONY BLAIR: Well, I hope so. You know, the cleanest thing, obviously, is for a renewal of the moratorium.

MARGARET WARNER: But he said this weekend that’s not going to happen.

TONY BLAIR: He has his huge difficulties internally with that. What I heard from him is this. I mean, I don’t want to get into the detail of what people may be discussing. But what I heard is, one, he wants to find a way through this issue. Two, he understands what the Palestinian concern is. And, three, he is serious about this negotiation.

So, can we find a way through this very tricky issue? Answer: Yes, if we really care enough about getting a final deal.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with Secretary Clinton, who said that this was the — quote — “last chance” for a negotiated two-state solution?

TONY BLAIR: You know, it’s always difficult when you say it’s the last chance, but I have to say, I think she’s right, in this sense, that I can’t see how, if you drag this out for several more years, it’s going to get any better. And I can easily see how it could get a lot worse.

So, you know, as I say, it’s a difficult thing to predict accurately. But, yes, I find it hard to see — if these two political leaders in this context, with an American president, administration pushing for a deal, if we can’t get one, I don’t know where we go from there.

MARGARET WARNER: You write in your book on several occasions that — how key you thought resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue was and remains to the wider struggle against Islamic extremism.

Let me flip it around. Do you think it’s possible for the West and for the forces of moderation to win that struggle without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

TONY BLAIR: Well, it’s a good question. I mean, I think it’s very hard to see that happening, frankly. Now, that is not to say that the Israel-Palestine issue is the cause of the extremism. It’s not. But resolving it would be immensely beneficial. Failure to resolve it leaves that poison there.

The fact is that each of them believe that they are deeply misunderstood by the other. And if you manage to get that understanding, then it would have a massive symbolic effect right across the region. And it would take away from those people who are extreme the ability to exploit this issue in order to cause conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: Another and related theme in your book is this idea that, after 9/11, as you said, everything changed and the world had to be remade. You thought the Islamic world had to be remade.

This is something you and President Bush shared. And Iraq fell into that sort of rubric for you. Nine years after 9/11, or seven-and-a-half years after the Iraq conflict, do you think that world has been reshaped in any significant way that is of benefit to the West and to the national security of the West?

TONY BLAIR: I think there is an identifiable struggle where those people that are modernizing, forward-looking, they have their constituency and they are moving forward.

Now, that’s not to say they’re not opposed very strongly by the opposite. So, in Iraq, just as in Afghanistan — people say to me, well, it’s so tough. It’s gone on for so many years. And it’s so hard. And we lose our soldiers. And there are civilians that are killed.

And I always say to people, well, you’ve got to ask, why is that happening? And it’s happening because of this wider issue. You know, the people who caused the difficulty in Iraq were al-Qaida on the one hand linking up with internal insurgents, but Iranian-backed militia on the other.

In other words, there was an external pressure that was trying to create and foment this sectarianism. So, in the end, what is the answer? The answer is to support and empower those people who want a different way forward, which include, of course, the people who are voting in Iraqi and Afghan elections and wanting a different way forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, you said — in saying that you have no regrets about going to war, you do not regret that decision, nonetheless, you and the president of the United States didn’t anticipate the nightmare that would be unleashed, the one you just described.

What does that say about our ability ever to understand the consequences of what we are doing in that part of the world, in other words, especially if we have the presumption of thinking that we can help reshape it or remake it?

TONY BLAIR: I think what it means is that, when we do understand and can see it, we do see these extreme forces, and they are very active, and their impact is terrible.

But the thing that should give us hope is that there are people who want a different way and who need our help to get it. So, you know, when I’m in — doing the work I do in Palestine at the moment, over these past two or three years, the Palestine economy in the West Bank, for example, is growing double digits.

You know, unemployment — I was in a place called Nablus the other day — unemployment last year 30 percent, this year 12 percent. They are really moving forward. Why is that? Because the Palestinian Authority have taken security matters into their own hands. They’re building the institutions of capacity and governance, and they’re running the West Bank properly.

MARGARET WARNER: But that’s a place where the U.S. didn’t intervene with force of arms. Is — is there a role, do you think still, for intervening with a force of arms, or does it just unleash demons that then we — that make life not only more difficult for us, but more difficult for the modernizers, as you describe them, in that world?

TONY BLAIR: Yes, and that’s the big question.

But my answer to it would be that the demons were there, you know, that if you look at what was actually happening in Iraq under Saddam or in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the demons weren’t on our television screen every night. The battle wasn’t as obvious as it was when we were engaged in it, but the battle was there.

And, in the end, the answer to it is not to say, well, we have got to leave you in this terrible situation, because, if we intervene, then these other people were going to come in and create mayhem. Do we let these terrorists cause that mayhem, or do we say, we’re going to stand up and confront you?

And this is the trouble, because, yes, it’s true, when they — when you intervene, they fight back. But does that mean you don’t intervene?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, meanwhile, here in the West, we’re seeing the rise of what some would call a new kind of Islamophobia.


MARGARET WARNER: In Europe, bans on building minarets or wearing the total veil, here right in New York, this furor over an Islamic center being built near Ground Zero.

What do you think is going on there? I mean, do you think the gulf between the two civilizations is actually widening?

TONY BLAIR: No, I don’t think so. But I think what is going on is that this extremism is producing its own reaction, right?

And what political leaders have got to do is to try and make sense of that. And, in my view, the only basis on which you make sense of it is to say, this is not a battle between Islam and the West. It is a battle, however, between those with a modern view of the world in which people of different faiths peacefully coexist together and those in whatever religion who don’t.

And, you know, it’s an interesting thing, this, but the reaction to this extremism, which is producing its own form of, as you say, Islamophobia in certain parts of the world and in Europe — you know, this is an issue now that is like wildfire through European politics — what is necessary for European leaders is to say, no, we are not going to engage in discrimination against Muslims.

On the contrary, we are going to stand up for the principle that people are born free and equal, whatever their race, whatever their faith, whatever their color, and we’re going to stand up for that and stand up for it against those within our own cultures and societies that want to discriminate and those who are fomenting extremism within Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: So, where does this whole line of thinking lead you when it comes to what a public leader must do confronting Iran and its nuclear ambitions?

TONY BLAIR: Well, you see, I think that, if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons capability, it would destabilize the whole of the Middle East. So, I don’t think it’s acceptable that it does.

And one of the reasons why Iran with nuclear capability is unacceptable is because of the nature of the Iranian regime. So, you know, this is — this is — you know, in that debate, in a way, you have encapsulated both the toughness and difficulty of the decision-making, because what happens if sanctions don’t work, and also the problem that, in the end, you know that they will try to present our confronting them as an attack on Islam, whereas, of course, it isn’t.

It’s an attack on a regime acquiring, unlawfully, nuclear weapons capability in circumstances where they export terrorism and chaos around the region.

MARGARET WARNER: So, when you talk about confronting them, you’re talking about militarily?

TONY BLAIR: You can’t take that option off the table, in my view. You know, I don’t want that option. I think we should strive as hard as we can to avoid it. But they have got to know that the will is there to stop them getting that capacity, because I think — look, you know, it’s difficult — these are difficult judgments. But my judgment, being out in that region a lot of the time, is, if you get a nuclear-armed Iran, two things will happen.

One, you will completely change the balance of power within the region, probably have other countries trying to acquire that capability, too. And, secondly, I see what Iran does in that region. You know, it’s not just about nuclear weapons capability. They are pushing and fomenting this extremism everywhere.

Now, if you give them the technology for nuclear weapons, can you be sure that they wouldn’t leak that technology? Well, I wouldn’t take that risk, personally.

MARGARET WARNER: And, yet, the Iraq experience, should that give us a certain humility about the prospect that, once again, we would just be blind to the potential consequences, to the demons, the nightmare, as you put it, that could be unleashed?

TONY BLAIR: Yes, of course, absolutely. You’re right. And that’s what makes it so difficult.

But the trouble is, we’re in a situation where, you know, as I always used to say to people, the consequences of removing Saddam are severe, but so is the alternative, which is leaving him there. And it’s the same with Iran. The consequences of confronting Iran are — you know, I don’t like to think about them, but we have to think about them, because the consequences of not confronting them and leaving them with nuclear weapons capability is also a problem.

So, you know, I’m afraid this is — we live in an era today of low predictability and tough decision-making.

MARGARET WARNER: Tony Blair, thank you so much.

TONY BLAIR: Thank you.