Blair calls on new Israeli govt to accept two-state solution

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Tony Blair, the special representative of the Middle East Quartet, yesterday (1 April) called on the newly-sworn-in government of Israel to engage with the Palestinians in credible negotiations over a two-state resolution of what appears to be the most difficult conflict in modern times.

Speaking to the press after meeting External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Brussels, Blair said there was no alternative to the two-state solution, which the newly-sworn-in Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu rejects. 

“There is no alternative to the two-state solution. Except the one-state solution, but if there is a one-state solution, there is going to be a big fight,” Blair said. 

Blair called the last six months “very difficult”, with the difficult formation of a new Israeli cabinet, the transition in the US to the new administration, and the conflict in Gaza. 

“Now that we have a new US administration in place, now that we have a new government in place in Israel, this is the time that we must make 2009 a year of progress,” said the Quartet representative. The group was established in 2002 and represents the EU, the UN, the US and Russia. 

Blair listed two other “essential priorities”: a “programme of change” in the West Bank and a “different policy” on Gaza. 

“I think there are three essential priorities: the first is a credible political negotiation for a two-state solution. Without that, it will be extremely difficult to have any progress at all. Secondly, there needs to be a programme of change on the West Bank, that is not small incremental steps, but major transformative change, that allows Palestinians to run their territory there, in a proper, dignified way, at the same time making sure that there is proper security, capacity and capability that protects the state of Israel. And thirdly, we need a different policy on Gaza, that lifts the blocade, that helps the people there, and that shows Gaza the prospect of hope for the future,” Blair said. 

Halting the blocade of Gaza 

His host Ferrero-Waldner expressed bitterness on behalf of the Commission over the continuing blockade of Gaza. 

“We agreed that the continued closure of the Gaza crossings is indeed a matter of deep concern. EU assistance, including fuel supplies, is still prevented from entering. And I am really very worried that the people of Gaza are suffering enormously as a direct result. Also, Israel continues to tightly restrict flows of cash to Gaza, which means that EU support to payments for vulnerable families and poor pensioners have been delayed,” Ferrero-Waldner said. 

Asked if the Commission was able to raise with its Israeli counterparts human rights-related issues, Ferrero Waldner answered: 

“We have been speaking very frankly with the Israelis. We have been engaging particularly on the crossings, how much can be entered into Gaza, what can be entered, what kind of goods, and I am very disappointed that nearly anything has been respected.” 

Blair not interested by EU role 

Blair was also asked whether he saw himself in a new capacity, as his name is frequently mentioned in predictions of who the permanent president of the EU could be, should the Lisbon Treaty become effective (EURACTIV 12/01/09). 

“I think I’m going to concentrate on the Middle East peace process in my Quartet role,” Blair replied. 

He has held the post of special representative of the Middle East Quartet since June 2007, when he resigned as prime minister of the UK and a member of the British parliament. Up to now he has kept a low profile, while leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy or his Egyptian colleague Hosni Mubarak have received most of the media attention for peace mediation (EURACTIV 19/01/09). 

Last June, Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-month ceasefire. The uneasy calm was periodically violated by armed factions in Gaza, which launched rockets at Israel's border settlements. The Israeli public and government subsequently gave Defence Minister Ehud Barak freedom to respond. 

Israel launched a 'Cast Lead' operation on 27 December 2008, targeting Hamas. In the military operation 1,300 Palestinians died, the majority of them civilians. Some 300 Hamas fighters are believed to have been killed and the majority of the tunnels along the border with Egypt have been destroyed. Thirteen Israelis lost their lives in the fighting. 

Against this background, difficult negotiations were held to form a new government, after former Prime Minister Ehut Olmert had to step down on corruption charges and new elections took place on the 10 February. The Israeli parliament yesterday (31 March) approved the country's new cabinet, led by Benyamin Netanyahu. 

The large number of ministers (30) was intended to satisfy his coalition partners' competing demands, but it also prompted criticism that it will prove unmanageable. The coalition includes Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, ultra-Orthodox Shas and a small religious faction, as well as the centre-left Labour party. Labour leader Ehud Barak remains defence minister. 

Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, has set alarm bells ringing abroad with his policy towards Israel's Arab citizens and his proposal to trade land on which many of them live for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. 

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