Tony Blair on the Gaza Crisis, and What's Next

Tony Blair was warned. When the former British prime minister left office in June 2007, plenty of friends and colleagues cautioned that plunging into Middle East peacemaking would be a thankless task. As envoy for the Quartet—the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia—Blair has focused primarily on economic development in the Palestinian territories. Now, with war raging, the former prime minister is watching parts of Gaza reduced. Blair spoke by phone with NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How seriously will the destruction in Gaza set back your efforts at development?
Tony Blair: It's been very difficult for the past year to do much in Gaza in economic development anyway, frankly. It's a massive task of reconstruction—humanitarian, economic—and we'll have to handle that at the appropriate time with an awful lot of support from the international community.

The United Nations and the Red Cross have been increasingly critical of this operation. Is Israel doing enough in your view to prevent civilian deaths in Gaza?
I'm not there on the ground. But I know that the U.N. is now deeply concerned, and so is the international community. So they've got to do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties. That's their duty. But let's be very honest with ourselves. The only thing that will stop innocent civilians from being killed is to put a stop to the problem. Not merely the short-term problem of getting the action in Gaza stopped, but the long-term problem, which is division on the Palestinian side—the split between Gaza and the West Bank.

Is a Palestinian unity government the solution?
Unity between Gaza and the West Bank is the answer. Unity within the Palestinians is obviously the right objective—but it's got to be on the right terms. In other words, the parties unifying have got to be agreeing. Unless it is clear that the Palestinian side is genuinely united—in other words, they agree that what they're trying to do is create their own state side-by-side with the Israeli state—it's very, very hard to get a viable negotiation. If you want a two-state solution, both sides have got to accept that there will be two states.

Doesn't this war risk exacerbating some of the differences between these two parties? Couldn't a militarily weakened Hamas embolden remaining Fatah elements to renew internecine violence?
You're right—but this is why this thing has got to be created by the international community. This process just can't be left up to the parties to try to find a way through. We've got to be helping and organizing and supporting and making sure you get not just the short-term ceasefire but the long-term resolution of this issue.

Was it frustrating to see the United States abstain from Thursday's U.N. Security Council vote?
No, the most important thing to me is getting a ceasefire on terms that can provide a lasting, durable solution. And that's all we're trying to do.

Is reopening the Rafah crossing to Egypt a realistic possibility in the short term?
Of course it's possible. If you close off the tunnels, you stop the illegal finance and illicit smuggling gains. But you've then got to reopen the crossings so the people of Gaza can be properly provided for. I think you can begin that relatively quickly. But first of all you need a ceasefire that's fully respected on both sides.

Will beefing up a contingent of U.S. engineers on the Egypt side of the border do enough to help stop the smuggling?
I think that if all that stands between us and stopping this is making sure that these tunnels are rendered useless, then I cannot believe it is beyond our wits to organize it.

Bush is at the end of his term, Obama has been very quiet. Do you see a leadership deficit during this crisis?
I think everybody's working hard to bring it to a solution. But the problem is—the problem remains the problem. The problem is that the Palestinian side is divided. The only way out of this, in the end, is to provide that viable way forward for a Palestinian state. It can be done. Whether it's the present administration or the next administration, that's what it takes.

The United Nations announced it would suspend aid deliveries as a result of the fighting. What impact will that have on the humanitarian situation?
It will have a serious impact. The U.N. has rules it has got to abide by for the protection of its own employees. But of course, the sooner we manage to get the humanitarian corridor working again, the better. But let's be clear. Whatever amount of humanitarian aid we put in there isn't going to compensate for the fact that life is hell for the people there.

Is it possible to deter asymmetric enemies like Hamas?
It is not possible to do it solely by military means, in my view. Which is why I've always argued that this broader struggle has to be answered by a combination of standing up militarily whenever it's necessary, but also being prepared to engage in the ideological debate. This is quite simple. You can debate the military effectiveness, and there are people who are lot better qualified to do that than me. But whatever the outcome of the military campaign, in the end the only solution to this is to offer people a viable, clear, credible alternative toward a Palestinian state.