Blair: Deal On Two-State Solution A Realistic Goal

Melissa Block speaks to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who's now the Middle East envoy for the Quartet — which includes the U.S., Russia, the UN and the EU. The Quartet wants to reach a peace deal on the two-state solution within two years. Blair says that's not an unrealistic goal if talks get going. He also says Hamas could be part of the process if they are prepared to work toward a two-state solution in a peaceful way.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And another player in the Middle East peace process is in Washington today: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is here in his capacity as Middle East envoy for the diplomatic Quartet made up of the U.S., Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. I spoke with him earlier today about his efforts to get peace talks back on track.

Tony Blair, welcome to the program.

Mr. TONY BLAIR (Former Prime Minister, UK; Middle East Envoy, The Quartet): Thank you.

BLOCK: In your view, how big a setback was Israel's announcement of these new housing plans for East Jerusalem?

Mr. BLAIR: Well, obviously, it made things difficult and the timing was particularly unhelpful. On the other hand, you've got to get back to the fundamentals, and the fundamentals are that we need a negotiation between the two parties. We need to get that underway as quickly as possible. And we need to carry on trying to take the type of confidence-building measures on the ground to improve the lives of Palestinians, to improve the Israelis' belief that they will have proper security with a Palestinian state. We've got to get on with those, what I would call, you know, on-the-ground measures that improve the context and the atmosphere of the negotiation.

BLOCK: From Prime Minister Netanyahu's point of view, though, one of those fundamentals seems to be that they have the right to build in East Jerusalem. He said last night to AIPAC, the Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. It's not a settlement, he said, it's our capital.

Mr. BLAIR: Well, that is, of course, I mean, one of the issues that the Israelis feel very strongly about on their side, the Palestinians do on theirs. What I've learned about this in the last two, three years, though, is that the only way actually of resolving the settlement question, ultimately, is to describe the borders of the state. The sooner you get to the point where you negotiate that and set down the borders of a Palestinian state, the easier it will be to deal with that issue.

And so, you know, there are going to be difficult situations that arise like this from time to time. That can't divert us from the essential truth, that there is only one solution to this: it's two states. And we have to get on with negotiating it, and as I say, taking the measures on the ground, support that negotiation.

BLOCK: And are you saying any signs that Israel will back down from those plans to build in East Jerusalem?

Mr. BLAIR: Well, they've given, of course, the commitment outside of Jerusalem. And, you know, the prime minister of Israel will carry on setting out his position on this. I think that we have got to look, however, at the things that we can be doing that support the daily lives of Palestinians, that make it easier for them. Some of the checkpoints, for example, are now open. That has made a big difference. It's made a difference to the Palestinian economy. The Palestinian economy in 2009 probably grew around about 10 percent. You know, we are actually making some changes on the West Bank to the advantage of the Palestinians. We need to take those a lot further.

BLOCK: Tony Blair, the level of trust between Israel and Palestinians right now has sunk to a low point, and the goal is indirect or proximity talks brokered by the U.S. - not direct talks right now. At the same time, the Quartet is saying it wants to reach a peace deal on a two-state solution within two years. So I wonder, given where things stand now, isn't that unrealistic?

Mr. BLAIR: Well, it's not unrealistic if we get the talks going, and if what happens on the ground is that measures are taken that boost of confidence and support for that process. I mean, after all, if you take the issues that are at the heart of this dispute, whether it's borders or refugees or even the very difficult question of Jerusalem, most people in their minds have a sense of what the solutions to these issues may be.

The problem is that unless you satisfy the Israelis on security and the Palestinians on the lifting of the occupation, you're never going to get the momentum and the political support for that negotiation to succeed. On the other hand, if you do carry on taking those measures, then you will have that support there for a political solution, and that can happen faster than people think.

BLOCK: At the same time, of course, there's another complication here. When you talk about the Palestinian side, there are, of course, two rival Palestinian entities: there's Fatah, and then of course there's Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Israel will not negotiate with Hamas. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. What role, if any, does or should Hamas play in these negotiations?

Mr. BLAIR: The problem is it's hard for Hamas to be part of the negotiation if they neither accept that Israel has the right to exist nor do they agree to forswear the use of violence to pursue their political claim. So, that is the problem that we have.

However, again, here I have a very clear view. If we make real progress in negotiation, if on the West Bank it is clear that we are moving forward strongly, and in respect to Gaza we have to take certain key humanitarian measures, but if we're able to do those things, Hamas has got a very important, very fundamental choice to make. It can either be part of the continuing process or isolated from it. But in the end, that will be their choice. But I would like that choice to be made in the context, where we have a viable and serious negotiation underway with real change on the ground happening to support it.

BLOCK: So you can imagine some scenario where Hamas would be a part of the process toward peace?

Mr. BLAIR: If they are prepared to be part of a two-state solution and to engage in working towards that solution peacefully, then the door has always been open to them.

BLOCK: Tony Blair, you spent years helping to broker the Northern Ireland peace agreement. I'm curious how that experience, do you think, comes to bear on your current role as the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East.

Mr. BLAIR: I think that role is particularly important when, you know - when you consider all these ups and downs and the things that can make life look very, very difficult, the fact is, you know, in Northern Ireland, we got used to this over a period of years. There were always ups and downs and difficulties and setbacks and challenges and many crises. You keep going, that's the lesson. You keep going. You never give up. You pursue your goal until you attain it.

BLOCK: Tony Blair, thank you.

Mr. BLAIR: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, serves as the Middle East envoy for the Quartet.

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