TEL AVIV — Former Quartet for Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair on Thursday said that dialogue with Hamas in the interest of unifying the Palestinian political leadership was “worth trying,” and maintained that the terror group’s stance on Israel could be changed.
The former British prime minister further urged a regional Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the form of “a revised and updated” Arab Peace Initiative, which would include a withdrawal to the 1967 lines with land swaps. He also backed up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertions that moderate Arab states are increasingly warming up to Israel amid increasing turmoil in the Middle East.
Addressing the Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv, Blair noted wryly that it was his 148th visit to Israel and in introducing his “new approach” conceded that “you’re not going to get peace the old way.”
Blair maintained that current Palestinian leadership was too fractured to reach a peace deal with Israel, thus requiring regional backing.
“I don’t think you will find Palestinian politics strong enough to make peace, unless it is backed by the region as a whole,” said Blair.
At the same time, Blair said Palestinian political unity was essential for any future accord, and suggested dialogue with Hamas was “worth trying.”
“I know it’s possible to bring people into a different position,” he said.
With regard to a regional peace deal, Blair said moderate Middle East countries “face the same existential threats as Israel” — he pointed to Iran and the Islamic State — which fosters “the possibility to create an alliance.”
“I have very similar conversations in Israel [as] I do in the rest of the region,” Blair said.
“Today, Israel is not your enemy,” he said of the moderate Arab states. “It is often the enemy of your enemy.”
However, initiating new peace talks is “not just a problem for Israel,” he said. “The region’s leadership must step up and do its part.”
Speaking at the same conference, President Reuven Rivlin urged Israel to adopt trust-building measures to strengthen ties between Palestinians and Israelis, but stopped short of endorsing the two-state solution.
“The goal of this generation is to build trust between Jews and Arabs,” the president said. “Even if we won’t end the conflict, we must build trust between both nations, such that the next generations won’t start, as we are, from scratch.”
Rivlin said Israeli efforts to improve Palestinian infrastructure and boost economic and educational ties between the two nations — all steps which he said are in Israel’s interest — “should have started yesterday.”
Both right-wing camps and left-wing camps have disregarded the Palestinians, Rivlin charged.
“It seems that both sides of the political map have ignored the fact that the Arabs and Palestinians in Israel are already here,” he said. “They’re here, as they have been here in the past, and they aren’t going anywhere, just as we believe that we aren’t going anywhere.”
“No separation or fence will make them disappear. Separation won’t make them invisible, or not hostile, just as ‘greater Israel’ won’t make them our friends.”
The president also directly addressed Palestinian youth regarding the wave of the near-daily attacks on Israeli civilians, and urged them to “choose life.”
“If you go out to stab, you will, heaven forbid, come back home in a coffin,” the president warned.
Terror is “a path without a destination,” he added. “Don’t let the Islamic State’s culture of the pornography of death affect you.”
Also addressing the event, Immigration Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) joined Rivlin in his indictment of both Israel’s right and left wings, as well as previous peace efforts. The left has failed to reach a peace agreement for a two-state solution, and the right ignores the existence of the Palestinians, he said.
The current security situation in Jerusalem “is the classic example why the two-state solution does not work,” said Elkin.
“The dreams of dividing Jerusalem are part of the Israeli discourse, but those who know about it in depth understand it’s impossible to divide it, and that it’s not interested in being divided,” he said, drawing some heckling from the crowd.
Elkin said Israel must invest in East Jerusalem infrastructure in the interest of quelling tensions. “If we continue to invest just pennies in East Jerusalem, these [violent] incidents will repeat over and over again.”
“Jerusalem is a prominent symbol of how Israeli society will look in the future,” Elkin said, pointing to demographic shifts. “A large portion of the public will look more like Jerusalem, and less like Tel Aviv. We have to ask ourselves how these two societies, as they are in the future, will be able to live in peace side-by-side and build the peace of tomorrow, not the peace of yesterday, the peace of ignoring [the Palestinians], which has collapsed over the past 20 years.”