Tony Blair has called on religious leaders to play a more important role in the peace process, and said that he is personally inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi.
In an interview with Terrasanta.net, a Franciscan Web site, the Middle East Quartet peace envoy also said he supported the idea that Hamas and Hezbollah should be allowed to take part in peace talks, but only if they renounce violence and back a two-state solution.
“It’s certainly better to have them in the Palestinian context as part of the process,” Blair said. “The trouble is that it’s difficult to bring them in unless it’s on a basis that we’re all working towards the same end.”
He added: “The Quartet principles are that unless there’s a clear commitment to non-violence as the means of achieving their ends, and unless it’s clear that we’re all trying to get a two-state solution, then it becomes difficult to see what the purpose is in involving them in this. The divisions in Palestinian politics are an inhibition. It is better to overcome them, but you can only ever overcome them if there’s some basic agreement on the principles governing the process.”
Turning to the subject of religious leaders, the former British prime minister said they “should play a more significant role” because religion is a key factor within the context of the conflict. “If people sometimes say to me, you know, this is really nothing to do with religion, I will say to them it obviously is to do with religion because religion is part of the context and background within which this dispute has come about,” he said. “So, of course, it would help enormously, and by and large the churches do play a very positive role.”
Asked whether he was inspired by the life and example of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th- century saint and peacemaker, Blair said: “Yes, absolutely. That message is one that of course has its place, and has its place even among people who don’t necessarily share our belief or our faith.”
Blair drew attention to economic growth in the West Bank, which he said had increased by over 7 percent in the first quarter of 2009 thanks to the efforts of the Quartet and others. He also praised Israel for easing roadblocks and restrictions on the Palestinians over the past few months, but said “there is a long distance to go” before such moves will help the economy in a “fundamental way.”
Despite skepticism of an agreement under the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Blair was optimistic. “I tend to the view that, in the right circumstances, Netanyahu will deliver a deal,” Blair said. “Certainly in the conversations I’ve had with him, his anxiety is merely a pronounced version of the existential Israeli anxiety which is: unless you can be sure, in this small bit of territory, there is a genuine basis for peace, then it’s hard to see how two states can live together.”
He added that for this reason, it’s important that any peace deal be a final settlement of all the issues. He also said he believed the hard-line nature of the Netanyahu government could be an advantage, but that the prime minister must take the initiative. “The great example is the ‘Nixon goes to China’ one, although it is important that he goes,” he said.
Blair said he believed peace could certainly be achieved in his lifetime, and that reaching an agreement should be less difficult than in Northern Ireland. As prime minister, he helped broker a peace deal there based on power-sharing. “In Northern Ireland it was always more difficult because there was never agreement as to the ultimate solution — a United Kingdom or a united Ireland,” he said. “With this peace process, on one level it’s easier because there is agreement: We should get two states.”
He added that what peace ultimately depends on is the will to achieve a lasting agreement. “My view very strongly is that what has been lost in recent years is the credibility of the process,” he said. “What has not been lost is the essential desire, on the part of both Israelis and the Palestinians, to have a deal.”
The Middle East Quartet peace envoy, representing the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia, says he is inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi, and says peace in the Holy Land could, in some sense, be easier to achieve than in Northern Ireland. He also gives an account of progress so far in the peace process, and the prospects for a lasting agreement under the government of Netanyahu.
Blair was speaking Aug. 27 in Rimini, where he was addressing Communion and Liberation’s 30th meeting for Friendship Among Peoples.
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