Tony Blair or Lauren Booth?

Cross-posted from the Z Word blog

From the moment he became the international community’s envoy to the Middle East, there was common agreement that Tony Blair was in for a tough challenge, with the distinct risk of a thankless result.

One of Blair’s roles is to build, patiently and quietly, Palestinian institutions. That’s based on the understanding that stable societies require stable, transparent governance. Day to day, it means he has to engage in complex negotiations and build trust on all sides.

Only today, for example, Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, confirmed that more than $20 million would be transferred to pay the wages of local employees of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, citing a request by Blair as a reason for his agreeing to do so. Coming hours after the announcement that Hamas is not interested in negotiations over abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, and a day after terrorists violated the truce by firing a rocket at the Israeli town of Sderot, it cannot have been an easy decision for an Israeli minister, given the possibility that Hamas – which is corrupt as well as brutal – might seize the funds for its own ends. By the same token, it cannot have been an easy request for Blair to make.

Yet Blair believes that, within limits, risks have to be taken in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a viable Palestinian state, which he insists is essential for Israel’s security. Addressing skeptical Israelis in an interview with the Jerusalem Post last year, he remarked that “the danger in this situation, if I can be very blunt about it, is that you say ‘There have been 60 years of failure of negotiation and therefore it’s always going to fail,’ whereas actually sometimes things aren’t like that. And to be fair to this Palestinian leadership, as I keep emphasizing, they’re living with the legacy of a certain type of politics and you don’t escape from that immediately.”

The leadership to which he refers, of course, is the one headed by Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah in the West Bank. The “type of politics” which has bequeathed such a troublesome legacy is that associated with the late Yasser Arafat. A politics based, you could say, on deceit and false hope. A politics aggressively represented, in our own time, by Hamas.

Hamas, in fact, was negative about Blair from the beginning. “We do not expect Blair’s role to be fair in any issue relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or any other Arab-related cause,” said Ghazi Hamad in the aftermath of the former British PM’s appointment. Just last month, Blair was forced to cancel a trip to Gaza after being warned of a credible security threat (the fact that Gaza is in the iron grip of Hamas compels some eyebrow-raising here.)

Blair’s experience illustrates the sheer messiness of diplomacy in this region: the strained compromises which need to be made, the imperative to resist the narrative of blaming the other which all sides engage in (something that Hamas, which fingered “Israeli collaborators” for the most recent rocket attack, excels at.) As a seasoned, veteran politician, Blair is better placed than many to grapple with all this. All the same, he’s only human; you have to wonder whether, occasionally, Blair wishes that he, too, could indulge in the lazy, simple-minded explanations which other people revel in.

People like his sister-in-law, Lauren Booth. Variously described as a journalist and far-left political activist, Booth has a long record of sniping at Blair – sniping which the British press, which always has one eye on entertainment value, occasionally records. In her most recent outburst, Booth called on Blair to “show some guts” by visiting Gaza. Presumably, had he visited last month and (heaven forbid) actually been assassinated, she would have distributed blame for that between Blair’s Middle East policies and the machinations of the State of Israel.

About the most complex diplomatic hurdle which Booth has thusfar negotiated appears to be her appearance on a reality TV show set in the Australian outback (weirdly, reality shows seem to attract a certain type of British anti-Zionist.) Nonetheless, Booth is now feeling very pleased with herself as she prepares to join two ships, the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty, on a mission to “break the siege of Gaza.”

Visit the website of the organization behind this exercise and you find the usual story: very little about what’s actually happening in Gaza, plenty of ire about the Palestinians “forcibly evicted” by Israel sixty years ago “while their homes, farms, and properties are inhabited by Jewish immigrants who arrived in Palestine from around the globe.”

Right now, it’s not clear whether these ships will actually sail, and, if they do, whether they will be able to proceed to Gaza. It doesn’t really matter, because this is yet another demonstration of the gesture politics and grandstanding beloved of the Palestinian solidarity movement. It will make all the participants feel noble and brave. It will feed their desire to be in the limelight. It will permit them to flirt with danger without taking the mortal risk of going somewhere like Darfur or Zimbabwe or Georgia. But it will do nothing to alleviate Gaza’s humanitarian crisis (I could add, “or secure the release of Gilad Shalit, or end once and for all the rocket attacks on Israel,” but neither of those is an aim of Booth or her shipmates.)

What it will do is pose a number of questions for the Palestinians, particularly those living in Gaza. Does hope really lie in these empty, narcissistic campaigns? Note well that every media mention of Lauren Booth describes her, in giggling fashion, as “Tony Blair’s sister-in-law” – is this about her or about you? Where is the value in the type of solidarity which sees you only as victims, and which ignores the massive human rights abuses and colossal political mistakes which your current rulers are responsible for? Above all, who is in a position to bring tangible change to your lives: Lauren Booth or Tony Blair?

And no, I’m not saying that Tony Blair has all the answers. But I’m certain that his sister-in-law doesn’t have any.