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Peace in Middle East a tall order for Blair

When I heard that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was coming to promote peace in the Middle East, I was reminded of that American senator who, in his frustration, exclaimed: "Why can't those Arabs and Jews just sit down and like good Christians settle their differences?"

In the case of Mr. Blair, however, this might not be a joke, because the popular, outgoing prime minister recently fathered a historic peace between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. If he managed to bring hard-headed Irish to the table and have them agree to a difficult compromise, couldn't he accomplish something of the sort between Arabs and Jews?

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Well, he might certainly try, but I have my doubts whether he will ever succeed.

At Camp David in 2000, President Bill Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat closer than ever to an agreement. In an act of unprecedented candor and boldness, all the sensitive issues were put on the table: territories, the Temple Mount, refugees, everything. Then Mr. Arafat rejected it, and the rest is history.

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Can Mr. Blair, who now has no assets except for his popularity, succeed where Mr. Clinton, who in 2000 was the mightiest leader on Earth, failed?

That a British statesman should endeavor to mediate here in the first place calls for some historical reflection.

Ninety years ago, toward the end of the First World War, the British forces conquered Palestine and freed it from the grip of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The British liberators received a warm welcome from Jewish and Arab populations of the land, who were sick and tired of the draconic Turkish rule. Soon enough, however, the locals turned against the British: first the Arabs, who revolted in 1936, and then the Jews, who rose up in 1944.

The British government looked seriously into the problem. In 1937, the Peel Commission of Inquiry recommended a partition of the land between Arabs and Jews as the only viable solution for this troublesome area. The wise commission members suggested a partition "for, if it offers neither party all it wants, it offers each what it wants most, namely freedom and security." Unfortunately, while the Jews endorsed the proposal, the Arabs totally rejected it, and Palestine became a battleground between the two communities.

Eventually, the British left in 1948, bruised and hurt, abandoning another stronghold of their waning empire. Before that, they had dumped the problem of Palestine on the table of the United Nations, and when the General Assembly voted on Nov. 29, 1947, in favor of the partition of Palestine, the British representative abstained, thus expressing his government's skepticism about the viability of that solution.

Now, 60 years later, the Brits are back, with Tony Blair showering smiles on the same wretched peoples, who are still struggling over the same piece of land.

But wait a minute - is this really Tony Blair, the former British prime minister? Or is this actually Michael Sheen, the British actor who plays him in the movie The Queen, next to Helen Mirren? Because we've had some celebs - Brad Pitt and others - coming here lately for a 24-hour visit, on a peace raid, then finding the paparazzi to be the biggest problem and vanishing into thin air. Jason Alexander, for example, came here, admitting that George Costanza, the selfish character he played on Seinfeld, "doesn't know that the Middle East exists" - but, thank God, Mr. Alexander knew.

No, it's Tony Blair for sure. Now I can see him clearly on television. Well, one has to admit, he had his bit of acting, at Princess Diana's funeral, with the lines from 1 Corinthians 13: "Though I speak with the tongue of men and angels ..." I loved it.

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Coming to think of it, this is exactly what we - Arabs and Jews - desperately need right now: some comfort. A final settlement will come only when we are both exhausted, or when a determined American president bangs our heads together and coerces us to compromise. In the meantime, there is nothing like a smile and a British accent to calm us down.

Welcome, Mr. Blair.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. His e-mail is dromi@idi.org.il.



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