(April 15, 2018 / Israel Hayom) Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is concerned by anti-Semitism in the Labour Party he once headed.
The party used to have a pro-Israel and pro-Zionist character, as well as a close relationship with its Israeli counterpart. But under leader Jeremy Corbyn since 2015, it seems that Labour’s relations with the Jews have reached rock bottom.
“This is a real problem, and we won’t deal with it until we acknowledge it,” Blair, who visited Israel recently, told Israel Hayom.
“I think that generally, anti-Semitism has risen in a really ugly and frankly disgusting way, and it has got to be rooted out completely,” he said. “Now the leadership said they will do that, and I think they have to realize that they need to do it. Because if you let those types of sentiment get control or get any purchase or put roots down in a political party, it is very hard to uproot it.”
Blair headed the Labour Party from 1994-2007 and served as prime minister from 1997-2007. He is still a member of the party, which he successfully rebranded in the 1990s as the “New Labour.”
This move enabled him to regain the confidence of affluent British Jews who had shifted to the right during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s years. In three election campaigns, Blair succeeded in sweeping the British mainstream, so he said that it pains him to see Corbyn set the party back to the days of the “old Labour,” and lose both the political center and the Jewish vote to the conservatives.
Ahead of the 2015 elections, only 13 percent of British Jews said they would vote for Labour under Corbyn. Some have speculated that it was this reluctance that prevented Corbyn from winning enough seats to form a government.
Q: Is it safe to say that you won’t be publicly endorsing Corbyn in the next election?
A: “Well, I am still a member of the Labour Party, and I believe in the Labour Party. At the last elections, frankly, no one really thought it was likely that he would win, but for me, a very big test of the future is around this anti-Semitism question. And I need to see not just action, I need to see a real change of attitude around the people around him in the leadership, who I think still regard this a media management issue and not as a real problem.”
When Blair became prime minister in 1997, he was the youngest premier in the United Kingdom in more than a century. His rise coincided with the rise of Israel’s youngest prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Blair is among the few who worked with Netanyahu both in his first term (1996-99) and in his second term since 2009.
Q: Did you notice any difference between the two premierships, in terms of personality or policy?
A: “That’s a good question. I obviously got to know him far better in his second incarnation. He is an extraordinary person and politician for sure. I think what is interesting is that I think he would say that he had learned a lot from his first term and very few people get the chance to come back with what they have learned the first time around. I did 10 years as P.M. straight, in one go.”
Q: Do you think Netanyahu will survive the scandals in which he is currently embroiled?
A: “I don’t involve myself in Israeli politics. I can’t possibly comment on situations internal to Israel because that is for you guys and the Israeli state to consider and determine. And you know, I think he does show remarkable resilience.
“Around the Western world, without going into the details of these cases—I just don’t know enough about it and in any event it is for the Israeli institutions to do their work in the way they think fit—but around the Western world, political leaders are under constant pressure from inquiries and investigations, and the difficulty is that, because they happen in a media spotlight and because they cause enormous tension, then they become politicized very, very quickly and it causes difficulties for the authorities and for the leader under pressure.
“And in the end, these things take their course, but the most important thing is to always ‘make sure that the big political debate in the country is about the big political issues. Where is the country going, and what it is trying to do? That is not to minimize the importance of any of these things, it is just to say my belief is that it is very important in Western politics that we do not end up with politics dominated by issues of scandal rather than issues of policy. This is what will determine the future of the country.”
The interview takes place shortly after the British government, as well as the U.S. and other countries, expelled dozens of Russian diplomats for using chemical agents to assassinate spy Sergei Skripal on British soil by poisoning him with a substance developed in Soviet laboratories during the Cold War.
Q: In 2006, after one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opponents, Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated with radioactive material in Britain, you expelled Russian diplomats. Do you think you should have taken harsher steps against Russia?
A: “We did take what we regarded at the time as tough action, but I think what is interesting is that this is now 12 years later, and what has been interesting is the reaction of other countries. When we were dealing with the Litvinenko problem, it was more or less seen as an isolated incident. I think that now the reaction of other countries shows that they too have real concerns about some of the activities of the Russian state. It is a problem and a challenge, because you know we need to also have a relationship with Russia.”
Q: What would you recommend doing? Boycotting this summer’s soccer World Cup in Russia?
A: “No … but we do need to send a clear signal to Russia that we want a good relationship, but you cannot tolerate things that are completely against our values and to our way of life being done in our countries. Whether it is interference with election processes or attempted assassination of someone who for whatever reason is a problem for the Russian state – these are not acceptable practices.”
Q: You left office in June 2007. At the time, Israel was planning a strike on the Syrian reactor in Deir ez-Zor. Were you somehow involved in the planning of the attack or the consultation with Israel or the United States?
Q: Were you aware of the reactor’s existence?
A: Blair pauses for a long time before finally saying,”I would have to check on the information about that before I start talking openly about this.”
Lessons From Iraq
At the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Blair said that even if weapons of mass destruction were not found, the fact that dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain such weapons was a sufficient pretext to topple his regime.
Q: Considering that Syrian President Bashar Assad is seeking WMDs, shouldn’t that logic apply to him?
A: “I was for a much clearer response to the Syria crisis. Right at the outset. Syria rose out of the Arab Spring, which is the single most important determining event in the Middle East in the past decade or so.
“What happened with the Arab Spring is that you got huge popular unrest, and that started to overthrow dictators who had been there for a long period of time. In the case of Iraq, the dictator had already been overthrown. So the Arab Spring didn’t come to Iraq but it came to all the other countries in the region.
“At the very beginning of the Syrian crisis [in 2011], I said that because of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was best if we could negotiate a transition and final exit for Assad without using force. The view at the time of the leadership in the West was that no, he has got to go. My attitude was, well then, if he has got to go, go get him out, but don’t leave him there but give him no way out.
“Now we are in a situation where, frankly, we are going to have to agree to whatever process we can, but there will no long-term future for Syria if Assad stays in charge long term. This is the problem we now have. But the fact that he was actually, without the knowledge of most of the world, developing a nuclear reactor, the fact that he has used chemical weapons, shows you the danger of allowing these dictators to stay in power.”
The interview with Blair took place several days before Syrian forces launched the most recent chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, northeast of Damascus, last Saturday.
Blair is credited with ending the long conflict in Northern Ireland by brokering the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which won widespread endorsement from residents and rendered extremist elements irrelevant.
He served as special envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East between 2007 and 2015, and today heads the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting tolerance, democracy and growth from a global viewpoint.
Q: Is there something missing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that you found in the Good Friday Agreement?
A: “There are certain things the Irish issue has in common with the Palestinian question and there are certain things that are completely different.”
Q: What was the secret to success you found there that is not here?
A: “The politics of both sides evolved to a degree where it was possible to create a conceptual framework for peace. … The context was right for peace. Because you had empowered politicians who were strong enough and clear enough to make tough decisions and you had a conceptual framework that worked.”
Q: Given the experience of the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, what can make Israel feel secure enough to make future concessions to the Palestinians?
A: “This is where the regional approach is so important. Because only the region, in my view, can help resolve the internal question of Palestinian politics in a way that gives you Palestinian leadership that is empowered, in favor of peace, and with the support of its people. And only the region can give Israel the comfort that if it does make peace—it’s making peace not just with the Palestinians, but with the region as a whole.”
Q: What do the Palestinians have to do to successfully make a move similar to that made by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1977?
A: “At the moment what we actually need is re-imagining the Arab [Saudi] peace initiative. … We need to re-imagine that so that the Arab side is involved, as I think the leadership today is prepared to be involved, in creating the circumstances for peace, and in normalization becoming a process and not just an event.
“When I was dealing with Egypt, they really didn’t want to get involved in trying to handle the situation in Gaza. They regarded that as, ‘There’s a border, it is an Israeli issue, so the Israelis should deal with it.’ Today, [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] Al-Sissi is actually prepared to take real risks for peace, so this is what changes the situation. You also have new leadership in Saudi Arabia with [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman.”
Q: Have you met him?
A: “Yeah, many times. This [him becoming crown prince] is probably the most important thing that has happened of a political nature in the Middle East in the last few years.”
Q. U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem following his Dec. 6 recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. If you were still prime minister, would you consider relocating the British Embassy to Jerusalem?
A: “As you know and I know, there is a lot of symbolism around the embassy. Because the truth of the matter is, Jerusalem will be the capital of the state, it is the capital of the State of Israel. When I go and see the prime minister and when visiting leaders come and see the prime minister, they see him in Jerusalem.
“So I think that when you shift your embassy to Jerusalem, which I completely understand as a move that is made, it should be part of a bigger strategy, so that you are able then to use that to help create conditions for peace. And I think that is, as I understand, what the Trump administration is doing.”
Q: Would you support Trump meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as he is planning to do with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?
A: “I think that is a decision he has to weigh up.”
Q: Would you be willing to meet Rouhani?
A: “I think you can do these things as pieces of theater, but I am assuming with Kim that underneath the theater there is a whole substructure of conversation and negotiation and so on. You don’t want to do these things for the sake of today’s headline, you want to do it if it actually advances the cause of change.
“The Iranian question—this is why it is so important. … The struggle in the Middle East is over two things: Can you get rule-based economies, where people can work hard and do well, and there is rule of law around commerce and business and so on. In other words, it is not corruption that gets you to the top, it is how hard you work and whether you can grow decent businesses; and the second principle is religious tolerance.
“The trouble with the Iranian regime is that it supports all the elements that are undermining those principles. … This is why in the end the Israeli-Arab relationship is so important because if it’s navigated in the right way it makes Israel part of the overall change in the region, a change that is based on values and not just on interests.
“Part of what my institute and organization do is we track what is happening in the Arab media across the Arab world, and there is for the first time a real and proper debate, which says the problems of the region are our problems, we are going to have to sort them out ourselves. Whatever we think about the Palestinian issue is not the cause of our problem, Israel is not the cause of our problems, Israel is not our enemy. Our enemies are people who do not support religious tolerance and want to run corrupt regimes.”