Blair’s Quartet resignation highlights the bankruptcy of the peace process

Tony Blair’s announcement yesterday that he was resigning from his post as Quartet Representative came as no surprise, especially after word of his imminent departure was leaked several weeks ago. Even so, Blair’s resignation is a welcome development and long overdue—not only because he was totally ineffective and lacked any credibility with the parties, but more importantly because the Blair mission itself has become a symbol of a dysfunctional and largely farcical peace process.

Blair’s outfit, known officially as the Office of the Quartet Representative (OQR), was established by the Bush administration in 2007 to promote Palestinian economic development and institution-building. The Quartet Representative is not to be confused with the Quartet however, which is the diplomatic group consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations formed in 2001 to oversee the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While on the surface the OQR may appear to be the operational arm of the Quartet, there is in fact no institutional or administrative link between the two entities—just one of the many oddities of the phenomenon known as the Middle East Peace Process. The diplomatic Quartet is best known for its 2003 landmark peace plan known as the Roadmap. The OQR is best known for, well, Tony Blair. 

Despite the occasional opening of a West Bank checkpoint or Gaza photo-op, the Blair mission had no discernable impact on the peace process throughout most of its eight-year existence. Although for a brief moment in 2013 it looked like Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that he was putting Blair in charge of a new economic initiative to spur the Palestinian economy in parallel with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might save Blair from irrelevance, the initiative, along with Kerry’s negotiations, quickly fizzled out.

Blair’s ineffectiveness is partly due to the narrow economic mandate that was defined for him by the Bush administration in 2007, but it is mostly the result of his own failings. Blair’s mission, like that of his predecessor, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, was never intended to be political but was limited solely to promoting Palestinian economic development and institution-building. Yet, unlike Wolfensohn, who was appointed in 2005 by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to oversee Palestinian economic recovery following Israel’s evacuation from Gaza, Blair has never challenged the narrowly-defined and artificially-imposed limits imposed on his mandate.

Indeed, the contrast between Blair and Wolfensohn could not be more stark. Wolfensohn, a seasoned entrepreneur-turned-diplomat with no formal experience in politics, understood the inherently political nature of his role and did not hesitate to push the political limits of his mandate. By contrast, Blair, a seasoned politician and experienced statesman, resisted public calls to play a more active political role and remained loyal to his narrowly-defined economic mandate, on which he had no particular expertise. Whereas Wolfensohn antagonized U.S. (and Israeli) officials and had his mission unceremoniously shut down after just one year, Blair contentedly stayed inside the “tight box” created for him and remained in his post for nearly eight years under two U.S. administrations.

Blair’s narrow mandate was no accident. The OQR was never intended to be an integral part of the Quartet’s political-diplomatic role but an alternative to it. The fact that Blair could be recruited to serve as a stand-in for the diplomatic group whenever they were too divided internally or too opposed to the U.S. position helped to reinforce American dominance of the process. At the same time, the exclusively economic, and more importantly Palestinian, focus of the OQR made the Quartet more palatable to Israel by depoliticizing its role and shifting its focus from mediating between two parties to managing (and often micromanaging) the affairs of one them—the Palestinians. Thus, instead of upgrading his economic mission to match the Quartet’s political role, the Blair mission helped in downgrading and depoliticizing the Quartet itself.

The fact that the Blair mission lasted as long as it has is sign of the stagnation and bankruptcy of what is commonly referred to as the “peace process”. With Blair’s departure, one hopes that American, European and other policymakers will finally begin doing away with other farcical aspects of that process as well, starting with the defunct Quartet itself.

Read my analysis paper, “The Middle East Quartet: A Post Mortem,” here.