“Tony Blair is so passionate about Israel that he cares more about the state than the Jews do themselves” was an observation made by a couple of BBC journalists who witnessed Blair’s address at the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) annual reception at Labour Party conference in 2002.
Toby Greene has written a book which looks at the underlying influences that shaped Tony Blair’s views towards Israel, and his government’s policy towards the Israel/Palestinian conflict and in so doing fills a void. There has been hardly any literature written about Blair’s attitude towards the conflict, regarded by many in the British Labour Party as the central issue in the Middle East, namely the question of Palestine.
To understand Blair’s sympathetic attitude towards Israel,one has to go back to the roots of New Labour. Whilst it is true that on becoming a Member of Parliament in 1983 he made a conscious decision to join LFI; his strong outward support for Israel really began in 1994 with his rebranding of the Party as New Labour. As Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland has observed: “What defines New Labour is a desire to be everything Old Labour wasn’t. Part of the package was Israel.” Indeed, the then Labour MP George Galloway in a letter to the New Statesman in 1994 perceptively noted that: ‘the group Labour Friends of Israel has been refreshed by an intake into the House of Commons of younger able Zionist MPs resulting in unfamiliar victories for the pro-Israel point of view.”
Blair strongly supported the Palestinians in their endeavours to establish a state, and would at every opportunity urge officials in the Bush administrationto take a more proactive stance on the Palestinian question. Indeed, in 2002, as a result of strong diplomatic pressure from Blair, George Bush became the first American President to call explicitly for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It also played politically well for Blair within the Labour Party. As Stephen Twigg MP has noted;putting a big emphasis on it (Palestine), “alongside standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush on Iraq would take at least some of the heat off him on the Iraq issue.”
Blair’s personal style inclined him to seek to influence by building affinity and trust with both parties to the conflict. For this reason he usually avoided publicly apportioning blame in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to either side and typically sought to recognize the responsibilities and challenges facing both sides. Blair has been criticized for not being forceful enough with both Israel and the Palestinians, but the reality is that Blair read the psyche of both Israelis and Palestinians correctly. Each side has a ‘victim mentality’ which positions them as the aggrieved party to the dispute,whether it was Sharon complaining that the West was sacrificing Israel and turning it into the Czechoslovakia of the 21st century, or Palestinians complaining of a bias towards Israel in western foreign policy. A failure to be even handed towards both parties would have resulted in Blair losing what little influence he had with one side or the other.
Greene doesn’t duck the big issues in the book. He looks extensively at the issue of whether the Israel- Palestinian conflict and western foreign policy are the root causes of terrorism in the western world today. This is a view commonly held by many people in the Labour Party such as his former Cabinet colleague and International Development Secretary Clare Short,who has stated that ‘United States backing for Israeli policies and oppression of the Palestinians is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world.’ Blair took a contrary point of view. He maintained that grievances claimed by the extremists against the West were false and were driven by hatred of western values and religious fanaticism,and that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict was exploited by radical Islamists to rally support for the their anti-western ideology. In his way of thinking, resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict would take away a tool used by Islamists to push a wider agenda. According to his former foreign policy adviser, Jonathan Powell, Blair believed that after 9/11:”it was important to remove the excuses made by groups like Al Qaeda. In other words, it is not that Al Qaeda was motivated by any real concern for the people of Palestine, but it did provide them with a very good stick to beat the West with and progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be part of the agenda to isolate the terrorists ” and to strengthen the forces of moderation in the Middle East
The increased political strength of the Muslim community became a factor in British politics during Blair’s tenure and by definition had the potential to impact on the UK’s Middle East policy. Policy makers were being urged to take into account domestic consideration when it came to formulating Middle East policy, especially with regards to efforts to stem radicalization within the Muslim community. As former Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw stated in the Commons on 27th November 2001- “We recognize the importance of a solution in the Middle East in terms of public opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and we recognize the importance of public opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds, not just in international relations, but in our domestic politics.” Andrew Burns, a former British Ambassador to Israel, regarded the heightened need to take account of domestic Muslim opinion in Britain after 9/11 and 7/7 as a sea change.
A weakness of Greene’s book is that he downplays the significance of the Lebanon War of 2006 in ‘doing Blair in’ and ending his Premiership earlier then he had intended to as a result of a massive rebellion by Labour MPs including ministerial resignations over his Lebanon policy. Many Labour MPs who had given Blair the benefit of doubt over Iraq, but who now felt badly burnt, were not prepared to give him a second chance when it came to his failure to join other European leaders in calling Israel’s actions disproportionate and calling for a ceasefire. There were lots of Labour MPs who were not prepared to acquiesce in supporting Blair’s approach of giving Israel more time to ‘knock out’ Hezbollah when the British public was so overwhelmingly opposed to Blair’s stance. An ICM poll at the end of July 2006 found that only 22% of voters thought Israel’s response was proportionate. Tony Blair candidly admits in his memoirs that “his attitude to the Lebanon War did more damage to him politically in terms of public opinion than anything since Iraq.” Many Labour MPs,including some sympathetic to Israel had come to the conclusion that one of the lessons of the Iraq war was that you can’t be seen to be ‘supporting a war’ even when British troops are not involved unless it was backed up by support from the British public. This was demonstrated further during the Syrian crisis of the summer of 2013. One of the major factors why Ed Miliband and the Parliamentary Labour party failed to support Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for military intervention in Syria in a motion on the floor of the House of Commons was because of lack of public support for it.
There are leaders who truly make the weather when it comes to foreign policy and Blair was such an individual. It is hard to imagine that his approach to Middle East issues would have been replicated, had any other individual in the Labour Party been its Leader. Brown’s government criticized Israel’s actions as disproportionate in the Gaza conflict which began at the end of 2008, unlike Blair over Lebanon. Ed Miliband, it will seem from the Syrian crisis will favour a less interventionist approach in the Middle East than Blair did. New Labour’s Foreign policy therefore stands out and Greene’s book makes an invaluable contribution in documenting an important aspect of New Labour’s Foreign Policy.