Tony Blair leaves office today after a decade as prime minister and at a time of his choosing. The obvious comparison is with Margaret Thatcher, who served slightly longer but who suffered the indignity of being deposed by her party. Apart from their longevity of service, they share the characteristic of being more admired abroad than at home (or at least than among the U.K. punditocracy).
Thatcher's post-premiership contribution to public life has been in the realm of ideas, through a foundation that bears her name. Tony Blair, however, is eager for a new political role. Last week, U.S. officials disclosed that Blair and President Bush had discussed the possibility of the prime minister's becoming a Middle East special envoy for the so-called Quartet--the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. Confirmation of the appointment by the Quartet appears imminent.
It will be a good thing for Blair. He leaves Downing Street at 54, only a few months older than Thatcher was when she entered it. A retiree from the highest office in his mid-50s might pass decades in the sunlit uplands of self-justification and speechifying, or worse. No aspect of Jimmy Carter's leadership became him better than the leaving of it, yet he managed to compound his record of public disservice through obstructive initiatives of his own invention. Blair is a weightier figure than to retire from public policy and devote himself to private diplomacy.
More important, Blair is the right man for the time and the task. Rosemary Hollis of the Royal Institute of International Affairs nicely and unwittingly confirmed the point last week when she lamented: "It's a most unfortunate idea. It implies that Tony Blair still has no notion of the repercussions of British intervention in the Middle East. It will do Mahmoud Abbas no good and could harm him. Tony Blair will be associated with an approach that wants a Palestinian state that is no more than useful to the Israelis and ends up enabling and sustaining the occupation."
The institute, known popularly as Chatham House, still has little notion of its own confusion--identified in a famous essay by Elie Kedourie--between history and prescription. It engages here in obvious misrepresentation of Blair's record. As well as pressing for the confidence-building measures on both sides envisaged in the Quartet's "Road Map" for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, Blair has clearly indicated what he regards as the final shape of that settlement.
One month after 9/11, Blair told a joint press conference at Downing Street with Yasir Arafat: "A viable Palestinian state, as part of a negotiated and agreed settlement, which guarantees peace and security for Israel, is the objective." He has never resiled from this formulation. In 2003, Blair welcomed the private initiative known as the Geneva Accord, the signing of which was attended by Blair's envoy, Lord Levy. That accord envisaged Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines, division of Jerusalem, Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and an open corridor between Gaza and the West Bank to ensure a territorially contiguous Palestinian state. It was, said Blair, "a chance to look beyond current difficulties to what might be achievable with goodwill on both sides." No fair observer could regard such a proposal as a merely pragmatic arrangement to serve Israel's interests.
But Blair still offends against the Chatham House version and its less sophisticated exponents. As the celebrated Independent columnist Robert Fisk put it last week: "I simply could not believe my ears in Beirut when a phone call told me that Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara was going to create 'Palestine'....I remain overwhelmed that this vain, deceitful man, this proven liar, a trumped-up lawyer who has the blood of thousands of Arab men, women and children on his hands is really contemplating being 'our' Middle East envoy."
The reason is Blair's insistence that a Middle East settlement depends on security. It is not a mere cliché. He means it. In the Lebanon conflict last summer he resisted calls for an immediate ceasefire, on the grounds that: "If [the violence] is to stop, it has to stop by undoing how it started. And it started with the kidnap of Israeli soldiers and the bombardment of northern Israel. If we want this to stop, that has to stop."
The current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer has much to do with historical accounting in a conflict of competing and legitimate nationalisms. The most urgent task is to salvage the hope of a pacific two-state settlement from the prospect of an Islamist-dominated lawless state in Gaza. There can be no long-term negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement that fails to protect Israel's civilians and the Palestinians of the West Bank from Hamas's theocratic fanaticism. Nor can Gaza be allowed to represent both a rogue state and--the dividing line between the two being a thin one--a potential failed state giving refuge to Islamist militancy of various stripes.
You can fault Tony Blair on his misplaced trust in the ability and willingness of Fatah's leadership to administrate efficiently and crack down on terrorism. But his understanding that the most crucial issue in world politics is the "battle for modernity" makes him the obvious, the right, and the indispensable international envoy for Middle East peace.
By Oliver Kamm