Tony Blair resigns as Middle East peace envoy

Tony Blair is to step down next month as special representative of the Quartet of international powers seeking a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, after making little headway for nearly eight years and amid near-constant controversy about his role.

Officials in Jerusalem said the former British prime minister had written to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to confirm his resignation.

Quartet representatives were meeting later on Wednesday in Brussels to discuss the implications of Blair’s departure, including whether he would be replaced. But sources close to the grouping insisted that he would not be “disappearing from the scene” and would continue to work in a personal capacity to foster peace.

Blair took on the Middle East job shortly after he left Downing Street in June 2007, and was given the task of helping develop the Palestinian economy and improve governance. But he struggled from the start.

Critics in Britain in particular focused on his responsibility for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and while Palestinians initially welcomed the appointment of such a high-profile figure, he quickly became seen as being too close to the Israelis, who were then, as now, far more powerful than the Palestinians still living under occupation.

The Quartet, founded in 2002, is composed of the US, EU, Russia and the UN. It became a byword for sluggish and incremental diplomacy that rarely challenged the status quo. It was overtaken by efforts led by the Obama administration to achieve a peace agreement that also failed.

Chris Doyle, of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said: “You [the Palestinians] cannot seriously build an economy under occupation but he never once rattled the cage and dared to speak out. He was all too comfortable with a status quo that was unsustainable.”

Blair’s departure comes at a time when hopes of meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are at rock bottom – against a background of dwindling expectations that a two-state solution to the conflict can ever be reached.

The new Israeli government, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, pays lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, but key ministers are opposed to making the necessary concessions. Netanyahu’s own credibility on the issue has been badly eroded, not least because the expansion of illegal West Bank settlements continues apace.

On the Palestinian side, power is divided between the western-backed Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah, which is still committed to the Oslo peace agreements of 1993, and the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and espouses the principle of armed resistance to Israel.

Blair’s departure came as little surprise. There has been mounting unease in Britain, the US and the EU over his extensive business activities in the Middle East – which have led to repeated accusations of conflicts of interest. Criticism of his effectiveness and credibility has increased in recent months and there was anger that he visited the Gaza Strip so infrequently.

Tony Blair with Reuven Rivlin on Blair’s official visit to Jerusalem in December last year.
Tony Blair with Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli president, on Blair’s official visit to Jerusalem in December last year. Photograph: Zuma/Rex Shutterstock

On his last visit in February he warned of another “catastrophe” following last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, in which about 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis were killed and 100,000 Gazans were left homeless.

News of his resignation brought critical and sarcastic comments on social media. “Some good news at last from the Middle East!” tweeted Carne Ross, a British diplomat who had served at the UN and resigned from the Foreign Office over the Iraq invasion.

There was a more positive assessment from Ghanem Nusseibeh, a Palestinian consultant. “Those expecting Tony Blair to solve the Arab Israeli conflict are naive,” he wrote. “But given the enormous complexity of it, Blair did a lot of good.”

Last year a group of former diplomats, thinkers and activists marked the seventh anniversary of his appointment by describing his achievements as Quartet envoy as negligible, even within his narrow mandate of promoting Palestinian economic development. The “impression of activity created by his high-profile appointment has hindered genuine progress towards a lasting peace”, they added.

“Seven years on there are still over 500 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank. The Gaza Strip, severely damaged by Israel’s 2009 bombing, remains in a humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its population reliant on foreign aid for survival. Israel continues to build settlements that are illegal under international law. According to the Palestinian Authority’s former chief negotiator Nabil Shaath, Blair has “achieved so very little because of his gross efforts to please the Israelis”.

Doyle said: “The vital thing is that the new envoy is given a much meatier mandate because the major issue is still impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. Blair suffered from a perceived conflict of interests with his considerable array of business contacts, with governments and organisations and companies in the Middle East. That also limited his time and availability for this critical issue. This is a fulltime not a part-time role.”

But one source close to the former prime minister said on Wednesday that Blair believed he had achieved most in improving passage for Palestinians on the West Bank through Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks. “More recently his efforts have helped open up the Allenby border crossing for Palestinian businessmen to access Jordan and he has been negotiating an upgrading of the terminal there.”

His relationship with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was tense at times, although he reportedly enjoyed better relations with other Palestinian figures.

Criticism of Blair in circles around Abbas focused on the allegation that he was too close to successive Israeli governments and more interested in Israel’s needs than promoting Palestinian issues. Senior officials were angry enough at one stage to discuss declaring him persona non grata, although that plan was shelved.

It is not clear whether the new role that Blair envisages for himself will be under the auspices of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

“Tony Blair has been so closely involved,” the source said. “He’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to disappear off radars any time soon. It won’t be a formal role but he will continue working through his contacts with key players like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Since leaving office Blair has received millions of pounds from a mixture of business interests that include advising Arab and other governments, consultancy work for the US investment bank JP Morgan and the lucrative international speaking circuit. 

Clients in the Middle East have included the Gulf states of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the latter pursuing a strongly anti-Islamist agenda. Others are Peru, Colombia, Kuwait, Vietnam and Kazakhstan.

Blair has claimed his net worth is around £10m and dismissed reports that his fortune could be 10 times as much.He has insisted his income pays for philanthropic projects, including development work in Africa and an interfaith charity. Blair’s properties include a multimillion-pound London home and a country retreat once owned by Sir John Gielgud, bought for £5.75m.

A statement from the Quartet on Wednesday said Blair had demonstrated an “unwavering commitment to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace and made lasting contributions to the effort to promote economic growth and improve daily life in the West Bank and Gaza”.



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