They say all political careers end in failure. And they’re usually right. Take Tony Blair. Smart, eloquent and competent, he delivered three thumping victories for the British Labour Party. And yet, when he left Downing Street in 2007 after a decade in office he was reviled, not least by members of his own party. Some said they would prefer the political wilderness rather than endure more of this fleet-footed, election-winning, pro-American warmonger. They got it.
That should have been curtains for Tony Blair. The law of political gravity should have eliminated him from the political radar screens. And for several years, it seemed to have done just that. He was gone, but not forgotten. On the day he resigned as prime minister, he was scooped up by the Quartet – the US, EU, Russia and the UN – as their point man in the Middle East peace process (privately, he also devoted himself to making a fortune – £60 million by some estimates – much of which has been ploughed into various charities he has established to promote interfaith understanding and African development).
Then last month, Blair burst back on to the British political scene when his memoirs – warts and all – were published in London. Instantly, the re-sharpened blades of a thousand knives flashed in the media spotlight. His announcement that all income from his book – some £4 million – would be donated to a returned servicemen’s organisation only served to ramp up the loathing. Did he believe he could wipe the slate clean and buy redemption so cheaply? Was he not responsible for marching shoulder-to-shoulder with George Bush into Afghanistan and Iraq? Was not the donation simply more self-serving spin from the swivel-eyed neo-neocon Tony “Bliar”?
Yes, he told a television interviewer, he was aware of how much his critics hated him. Yes, he deeply regretted the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. But no – emphatically no – he would not apologise for the decision to go to war in Iraq. The decisions were, he conceded, debatable, but he thought they were right then, and he continues to believe they are right.
But Iraq was merely the most blatant symptom of Blair’s fall from grace. He warned that if Europe chose to duck the threat of Islamic extremism now it would have to face it in an even more venomous form later. And, he added, if the international community did not succeed in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions by diplomacy, he would favour a military response. All this, of course, only added to the loathing.
But most damaging of all, perhaps, was his refusal to slavishly follow Europe’s well-worn diplomatic script on Israel. In an address to the annual Herzliya Conference, he said he counsels his European colleagues not to apply rules to Israel that they would not dream of applying to their own countries. Just listen: “If there were people firing rockets, committing acts of terrorism and living next door to us [Europeans], our public opinion would go crazy. And any political leader who took the line that we shouldn’t get too excited about it, wouldn’t last long as a political leader. [Israel] is a democracy. Israel lost 1,000 citizens to terrorism in the intifada. That equates in UK population terms to 10,000. I remember the bomb attacks from Irish Republican terrorism in the 1970s. There weren’t many arguing for a policy of phlegmatic calm”.
Tony Blair is a rare exception to the European rule. He has genuine boots-on-the-ground knowledge of Israel and the Palestinian areas – the West Bank in particular – and he has the political courage to reach beyond the clapped-out political clichés. He has sympathy for both sides, but his concern for the Palestinians is not uncritical. Rather, it is realistic and practical. One high-profile Israeli politician, a former IDF general, was dazzled by two meetings he held with Blair in Israel. “Blair is,” my friend confided, “the first senior European politician I’ve met who really gets it.”
Perhaps. But it is prudent to apply a touch of cynicism when politicians sound too good to be true, especially when it comes to Israel. In his memoirs, Blair was frank about stretching the truth to breaking point when conducting proximity talks with antagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict. He simply told leaders of the two sides what they wanted to hear, inventing concessions by one in order to extract further concessions from the other.
Now Blair is an integral part of the international drive to squeeze a peace deal out of the Middle East protagonists. Sceptics might be sufficiently tempted to point to his skill in the dark arts of political spin and his questionable dealings in Northern Ireland to ask whether he is all that he seems to be. Is he, perhaps, playing good cop to Europe’s bad cop, winning the trust of Israelis as a prelude to springing a trap?
Hopefully, Blair is being sincere and not lulling the Israelis into a false sense of security. Hopefully, too, the Israelis are smart enough to tell the difference.