Blair visits market in Jenin"As I have continually said, the economics is not a substitute for the politics, and so we need to combine changing the facts on the ground with a restarting of the political negotiations and that is what President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell are working so hard on to achieve. What I hope this work can do is help to provide a context in which successful negotiations can be launched."
You were appointed as Quartet Representative to work on building the conditions for a Palestinian state. What are the major challenges you’ve faced in your position?
I think there have been two major challenges: firstly, building confidence in the peace process amongst the parties after so much violence and so many dashed hopes, and secondly, the specific issues around Gaza.
On the first, it is entirely understandable given recent history that confidence in the peace process is low, even at the time when both peoples still continue to support a two-state solution. They want peace, but they have become pessimistic that it is possible. That’s why we need to see transformative change of the facts on the ground in the West Bank so that Palestinians can see an improvement in their daily lives and the weight of occupation can be lifted, at the same time as the Palestinian Authority continues to reform and improve their security capacity so that Israelis can feel secure.
On Gaza, I have consistently argued for a new and better strategy than that of simply cordoning it off. This would of course be made a lot easier if Corporal Shalit were released, and there is absolutely no justification for his ongoing detention. But, in any case, we do need a new strategy which starts to lift the blockade, so that reconstruction can take place, and legitimate business can prosper, rather than continuing to force people there to rely on the black economy, which only benefits Hamas. The situation, as it stands, benefits Hamas and hurts those Gazans who are moderate and reject Hamas’ approach.
What are the major steps forward that you and others have implemented since you were appointed?
We have seen a real change on the ground as a result of our combined efforts. The economy is now improving significantly in the West Bank with official statistics estimating seven percent growth for this year and unofficial Palestinian estimates in double digits. Palestinians are now able to move throughout the West Bank in ways impossible when we started pushing for changes in the access and movement regime. Moreover, trade between Israel and the West Bank has increased significantly, producing a significant economic bounce to the West Bank.
My team has helped to organize two significant investment conferences in the West Bank, to show that despite the challenges, Palestine is open for business; and these have helped to generate outside investment. Plus, we have generated much-needed revenue to support the Palestinian Authority budget, building on the Paris donor conference of 2007, which I co-chaired. In addition, the team that I head works to make changes on the ground in small ways on a daily basis, the aggregate of which is leading to a perceptible difference that most people now recognize.
Recent improvements in the West Bank economy have received significant attention over the past few months. What do you think are the most realistic ways to sustain and build on these improvements in the long run?
We have seen significant change in the last few months, for example, two of the projects I have been working closely on have been the opening of the Jalameh vehicle crossing which allows Arab Israelis to bring cars into the West Bank for the first time since the second intifada and the second is the launch of the Wataniya mobile phone company, which is the largest foreign direct investment into the Palestinian economy there has been. There are now further projects we are working on, such as the Rawabi housing project outside of Ramallah, which would be the largest single building project in modern times.
Plus, we need to look to make further changes to the access and movement regime in the West Bank, so we can further improve the ability of Palestinians to move around and do business. A significant boost could come from allowing Palestinian use and development of the so-called “Area C,” where Israel currently maintains sole security and administrative control. This land makes up some 60 percent of the West Bank. Much more needs to be done for people to believe that they are on an inexorable road to peace, and a political process is necessary to ensure that the economic gains are enshrined and continue.
How do you think capacity and institution-building and economic development tie in with the political process?
As I have continually said, the economics is not a substitute for the politics, and so we need to combine changing the facts on the ground with a restarting of the political negotiations and that is what President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell are working so hard on to achieve. What I hope this work can do is help to provide a context in which successful negotiations can be launched.
Where do you think are the potential points of progress right now?
There is an ambitious but deliverable agenda ahead, on each of the political, economic and security tracks. The political negotiations need to resume as soon as possible—the U.S. administration is exerting every effort on this. We can make significant progress on economic change and state building. There is more that can be done on ensuring freedom of movement around and into the West Bank, which helps stimulate growth. Palestinian security and wider rule of law capability continues to strengthen, day by day. Prime Minister Fayyad’s two-year plan for state building contains excellent proposals, on which Israel and the international community can engage.
Improving the conditions in Gaza remains one of the most critical and difficult issues to tackle. What are some practical steps that can be taken to address this problem?
Israel’s security concerns about the Gaza Strip are legitimate. You cannot have rockets attacking Israeli population centers. Yet its current policy approach to Gaza is counter-productive, strengthening the de facto local authorities’ grip over the territory providing them with windfall revenue opportunities, diminishing further the Palestinian Authority’s role and influence, and sharpening political and economic division between Gaza and the West Bank.
Immediate measures to alleviate the situation would include allowing the regular entry through the crossings of a wide range of humanitarian goods, with a presumption that all except a narrowly defined list of high-risk items would get through; expanding the successful export of agricultural produce from Gaza; and allowing the entry of materials for construction, both infrastructure and housing. The United Nations has an excellent pilot proposal to get reconstruction going again, with suitable guarantees that material won’t be diverted.
There is also the North Gaza Sewage Treatment Works we have been working on with the World Bank, and there are a series of other such projects that need support as a matter of urgency. And to repeat what I said at the beginning, this would of course be made a lot easier if Corporal Shalit, whose ongoing detention is totally unjustified, were released.
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