Will Tony Blair play a peacekeeping role in Gaza?

The former British prime minister had little experience in the Middle East until he joined George W Bush's War on Terror in 2001.

The former British premier and Mideast envoy is being slated to oversee humanitarian aid into Gaza once Israel wraps up its war.
Laura Salafia
The former British premier and Mideast envoy is being slated to oversee humanitarian aid into Gaza once Israel wraps up its war.

Will Tony Blair play a peacekeeping role in Gaza?

Ever since Tony Blair staked his political reputation on backing the US-led invasion of Iraq, the former prime minister has worked relentlessly to resolve the many challenges facing the modern-day Middle East.

Prior to his involvement in the controversial military campaign to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Blair’s involvement in the region had been minimal.

Having made his name as the architect of New Labour, the radical rebranding of the UK’s traditional Labour party that helped him win a landslide victory in the 1997 general election, Blair’s main exposure to key foreign policy issues had been his high-profile role in resolving the Kosovo crisis in the late 1990s.

His insistence on persuading then-US President Bill Clinton to authorise NATO to use military force against the forces of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic proved crucial to ending hostilities.

Blair’s key role in securing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland and laid the foundations of new power-sharing arrangements between Catholics and Protestants, further boosted his standing as a global statesman of stature.

Rude introduction

His involvement in the Middle East, though, was relatively limited until the September 11 attacks in 2001, when his determination to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with former US President George W. Bush in responding to the attack gave him a rude introduction to the challenging world of Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Having agreed to provide British military support for America’s initial military intervention in Afghanistan to destroy Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, which was accused of carrying out the September 11 attacks, Blair soon found himself deeply involved in the Bush administration’s far more controversial decision to invade Iraq and overthrow the country’s ruling Ba’athist regime.

While the US-led military campaign ultimately succeeded in removing Saddam from power, the subsequent chaos it inflicted on the Iraqi people, with the country rapidly descending into a bitter sectarian war, did significant harm to Blair’s international reputation.

US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands following a joint press conference on 07 December 2006 in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC.

Consequently, Blair’s subsequent involvement in the Middle East, especially after his decision to stand down as prime minister and leave Downing Street in 2007, has been seen by many as an effort to rehabilitate his profile in the region.

It is also seen as a way to bring in funding for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change — the foundation that represents Blair’s global activities.

Bush's Road Map

Blair’s personal commitment to resolving some of the region’s more intractable disputes, such as the long-running Israeli-Palestinian issue, stems from his initial involvement in promoting the Bush administration’s Road Map to peace in the Middle East.

The Road Map was a series of initiatives designed to encourage Israelis and Palestinians over the course of three years to move towards the creation of a Palestinian state that could exist in peace with Israel.

While the initiative failed to achieve its ultimate goal of implementing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it nevertheless laid the groundwork for Blair’s deepening involvement in the region.

Despite Palestinian concerns that his close association with the Bush administration left him open to accusations of pro-Israeli bias, Blair sought to draw on his Good Friday credentials to encourage dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians on resolving their differences.

Blair's involvement in the Middle East was relatively limited until he pledged to stand shoulder-to-shoulder" with the US after 9/11.

Following his appointment in 2007 as a Special Envoy on behalf of the International Quartet — comprising the US, the UN, the EU and Russia, set up to resolve a number of outstanding regional issues — Blair worked tirelessly to break the impasse, even if his efforts were not always widely appreciated.

In many respects, Blair was given an impossible job, as neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians showed much commitment to resolving their differences during the eight years Blair held the post, for which he received no payment.

Even so, Blair believed the best way to nudge the peace process in the right direction was to work for Palestinian economic empowerment.

He believed that economic development — along with money poured into political institutions — would make a Palestinian state more viable and less likely to fall under the domination of Hamas or another extremist organisation.

Although he attracted criticism for only working part-time in his envoy role, Blair nevertheless managed to achieve a number of modest improvements for Palestinians living in the West Bank, such as pushing the Israelis to reduce the number of checkpoints in the occupied territory. He also helped to make it easier for Palestinian businesspeople to use the Allenby crossing to and from Jordan.

Arguably, the high point of Blair's mission came in 2013 when the Obama administration authorised Blair to oversee a $4bn investment drive for the Occupied Territories aimed at kickstarting the Palestinian economy.

A team of experts assembled by Blair to implement the project predicted the plan could increase Palestinian GDP by 50% over three years, cut unemployment in the region by two-thirds from 21% to 8% and raise the minimum wage by 40%.

Laura Salafia

The plan's achievements were more modest, not least because of restrictions imposed by Israel, which limited the scope of the development programme.

Nevertheless, Blair's involvement saw a notable improvement in living standards in major Palestinian cities such as Ramallah, even if the economic benefits were undermined by the corrupt practices of some Palestinian officials, while the Christian town of Bethlehem reported a notable increase in its tourism trade.

As the Middle East commentator Tom Gross later commented on the former prime minister's performance, "Blair had the right idea much more than he is given credit for. He wanted to build peace from the ground up rather than just make grand gestures or take part in photo-ops."

Criticism from all sides

Blair's Special Envoy role was not without its critics.

There were complaints from both Israeli and Palestinian officials that he could appear arrogant and patronising, with both sides suggesting he did not spend a sufficient amount of time in the region to fully grasp the strength of feeling felt on key issues.

By the time he resigned from the role in May 2015, Blair's relationship with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) had almost completely broken down.

"This has come as no surprise," the veteran Palestinian campaigner Hanan Ashrawi commented when news of his resignation eventually emerged.

"It has long been clear that nothing at all was getting done."

Reports also surfaced that the US and EU had grown so frustrated with Blair's poor relationship with the Palestinian leadership that they had begun pushing for his resignation.

A spokesperson for the PA went even further, declaring that Blair has been "a persona non grata for a while.

"He hasn't been assuming his responsibility for a long time, so him being in the position or not is almost the same," they said.

Blair wanted to build peace from the ground up rather than just make grand gestures or take part in photo-ops.

Tom Gross, Middle East commentator

Blair's numerous dealings with prominent Arab leaders also raised concerns with the Israelis, who increasingly came to see him as irrelevant when it came to reviving the peace process.


Another factor that complicated Blair's role was that, prior to creating the Tony Blair Institute in 2016, the former premier spent much of his time acting as a statesman-for-hire with a number of controversial clients.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's former ruler, hired him as a consultant after a 2011 anti-government uprising. He also worked for the authorities in Kuwait, Columbia and Vietnam.

Despite these criticisms, Blair's tenure as a Special Envoy does not appear to have damaged his standing in the eyes of key Gulf states. On the contrary, recent studies of the TBI's activities indicate he has struck a number of lucrative business deals with them.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are among several Arab states that are said to rely on the former prime minister's organisation for strategic advice.

In Bahrain, the institute has been advising the kingdom on its ambitious government modernisation programme, while Blair's organisation is also reported to have advised the Saudis on their own Vision 2030 modernisation programme.

Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair speaks at a panel session during the World Government Summit in Dubai on February 13, 2024.

Meanwhile, Blair's long-established links to the UAE were thrown into the spotlight in December during a prominent appearance at the COP28 climate change summit, where he met multiple world leaders.

The Blair Institute currently runs its own office in Abu Dhabi, where staff are tasked with helping to devise political strategies for governments within the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

The recent expansion in the TBI's activities is reflected in its recently published accounts, which show that its income from foreign governments rose by almost 50% during the past year.

To achieve this uplift, the institute has sought to place more emphasis on its international consultancy operation, scaling down the number of senior policy staff in London while increasing recruitment abroad.

Blair's organisation is also said to benefit from an extensive list of donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Lloyds Banking Group.

Criticisms over his performance as Mideast envoy, haven't damaged Blair's standing in the eyes of key Gulf states.

This recent increase in activity has raised the prospect that the former prime minister might yet again be invited to take on a new peacekeeping role in the region. He is being slated to oversee humanitarian aid into Gaza once Israel wraps up its war.

A recent report in the Ynet media outlet claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to draw on Blair's experience as a former envoy to the region to address international concerns over the civilian cost of Israel's campaign in Gaza.

Whether Blair actually takes up the role remains to be seen and will depend to a large extent on the situation in Gaza once Israel's military offensive is over.

But the fact that the former prime minister is even being considered for a new peace role shows that, for all Blair's previous mistakes in the region, his stature as one of the world's leading political operators remains undiminished.

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