Tony Blair, transcript: Middle East & Goldsmith on Iraq war legality

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    29th November, 2009

    KING: There’s an inquiry into the run-off, the political decisions, the military decisions in the run-up to the Iraq war. And your name, and your credibility have been called into question … Lord Goldsmith, who was your attorney general back in those days, says that he warned you that this was a breach of international law, but that he was bullied into being quiet and convinced not to resign from the government. Is that an accurate portrayal?

    BLAIR: No, it’s not, but I think the best thing with this inquiry is actually to let us all give our evidence to the inquiry. And you know, I’ve been through these issues many, many times over the past few years and I’m very happy to go through them again. But I think probably the appropriate place to do that is in front of the inquiry.

    Aired November 29, 2009 – 09:00   ET

    THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

    KING: After months of stalemate, perhaps a bit of movement in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a 10-month freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But Palestinian officials say the moratorium doesn’t go far enough, because it doesn’t include a halt in construction in East Jerusalem.

    So is there an opening for progress or just more finger-pointing and frustration? Our next guest has unique insight. Tony Blair is the former British prime minister and now special envoy to the Middle East for the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

    Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for joining us. Let’s start with the basic question, will the Israelis and the Palestinians sit down or will they continue just to talk about sitting down? BLAIR: Well, I hope they sit down because it’s absolutely essential that we get a political negotiation under way and get it under way as quickly as possible. Because there are things, positive things happening on the ground right at the moment on the West Bank.

    The Palestinian economy is growing. There are check points being opened or removed. There’s a lot of bustle and activity on the West Bank. In Gaza, let us hope we get the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier and then start to get some opening up of Gaza to the outside world.

    So there are positive things that are happening, but it needs an overarching political negotiation in order to succeed.

    KING: Some positive things, as you know, but what is missing, and you know this all too well, is trust. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not trusted by the Palestinians, and even after this concession on his part, which caused him a bit of grief in his own political support, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has made this concession, but the Palestinian prime minister, Mr. Fayyad, says it’s not enough.

    He says, what has changed to make something that was not acceptable a week or 10 days ago acceptable now? The exclusion of Jerusalem is a very serious problem for us.

    Should the Palestinians, in your view, sit down, even though it’s not perfect? Is it time to sit down and just say, look, you’re not going to get everything you want entering negotiations? Just sit down and negotiate?

    BLAIR: Well, I’ve just spent some time with the Israeli prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, and I think he is genuine and serious in wanting the negotiation to start. I think from the Palestinian point of view, they need to know that this negotiation is going to be credible. In other words, it’s not just going to be sitting down and talking, but it is genuinely going to lead us towards the two-state solution that everyone wants to see.

    So the debate at the moment is, how do we create the context in which people think this negotiation is serious, that it will lead to a viable Palestinian state, one that is a secure neighbor for Israel, but also a Palestinian state in which the Palestinians have the freedom to run their own territory?

    KING: Assess the politics of the moment. Some would look at these two governments and say Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot afford to give up much or he’ll lose his coalition. President Abbas has said, enough, I’m frustrated with this, I’m not going to stay in power much longer. So you see two weak governments, some would say, there is no way they could get anything done, and others would say, that’s the perfect opportunity. How do you see it?

    BLAIR: Because I’m more naturally optimistic, I see it as an opportunity. I also think both of them have got one great source of strength that’s not to be underestimated here. I mean, I spend a lot of time in Israel and in the Palestinian territory. There is no doubt in my mind at all that a majority of people, both Israelis and Palestinians, want to see a two-state solution.

    Their doubt over the past years has been whether it’s possible to have it, but their commitment in principle to getting it has not diminished. So our task, if you like, is to set the context in which they think this can be done. Now I’ve spent time talking to the leadership of both sides.

    Whatever doubts they have about each other’s good faith from time to time, I mean, I don’t doubt the good faith of either. I think they genuinely want to find a way through, but they come at it from completely opposite sides. Israel wants to know that its security is going to be protected, while on the West Bank the Palestinian Authority have made real strides forward in security.

    I mean, I can go to cities on the West Bank now, Jenin and Nablus and Hebron and Qalqilya and Jericho, places that two years ago would have had quite a different security setting, now with security greatly improved. So there are things that the Palestinians are doing, actually, to help meet that Israeli concern.

    On the other side, for the Palestinians, what they need to know is that if they sit down and talk so the Israelis, it will lead, genuinely, to an independent Palestinian state. And what is it that they want to know? They want to know that the weight of occupation will be lifted.

    But there again, actually, there have been some things that have happened on the West Bank: check points opened, some of the restrictions lifted, Israeli-Arabs coming into the Palestinian territory, an increase in economic growth. As a result, the West Bank economy is probably growing maybe in double digits, actually, at the moment.

    BLAIR: So there is real potential and hope, but the next month, I think, will be completely critical, fundamental to this, because if we can’t get negotiations going that are credible, then the vacuum that is created will suit no one but the extremists.

    KING: Let me follow up on that point. You mentioned the next month is critical. One of the questions being asked back here in the United States is where is the U.S. leadership? I want to read you a bit from a “New York Times” editorial this Saturday. “Nine months later, the president’s promising peace initiative has unraveled. The Israelis have refused to stop all. The Palestinians say that they won’t talk to the Israelis until they do. President Mahmoud Abbas is so despondent, he has threatened to quit. Arab states are refusing to do anything. Mr. Obama’s own credibility is so diminished, his own approval rating in Israel is 4 percent, that serious negotiations may be farther off than ever. Peacemaking takes strategic skill, but we see no sign that President Obama and Mr. Mitchell were thinking more than one move down the board.”

    That’s a pretty sober, pretty negative assessment of the American diplomatic involvement. Do you share it?

    BLAIR: I don’t, actually. I mean, it won’t surprise you to know. I think that, first of all, let me tell you that I worked with Senator George Mitchell of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. We work together very closely. He is, in my view, one of the most skilled and strategic negotiators I’ve ever come across.

    Secondly, I think President Obama, Secretary Clinton are completely committed to doing this. But third and perhaps most important of all, I went through situations in times in the Northern Ireland process where people were convinced the thing was going to fail. Where even at times, I found it difficult to see a way through. But you know, the thing is, there is a way through here because in fact, both parties want to achieve a two-state solution.

    Actually, the Palestinians have made significant progress on security. In fact, the Israelis are prepared, in my view, to change significantly their posture on the West Bank. And if we can get Corporal Shalit released, then a major change in the way that we view Gaza. It’s not without hope.

    And here’s the thing, John. There is no alternative but to keep trying. The alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution and that will be, I assure you, be a hell of a fight. So I think when we look at the various strands of negativity there are around at the moment and there always are in these negotiations, there are, nonetheless, positives.

    We’ve got to seize on them, work on them, and make sure that we bring about a situation in which the central strategic objective of President Obama, which is right at the outset of his administration, to make this process count and work is achieved. And I do emphasize that as well. The president said this at this beginning. This is, to my mind, the big difference of what has come before.

    At the very beginning of this administration, he set that as a core strategic objective. I have absolutely no doubt he holds to that and whatever the difficulties and the obstacles, we have to find a way through. And personally, although as I say I am optimist by nature, I believe we will.

    KING: Let me shift subjects. I want to get your thoughts about an inquiry back in your home country. There’s an inquiry into the run-off, the political decisions, the military decisions in the run-up to the Iraq war. And your name, and your credibility have been called into question, your good name has been called into question in this inquiry.

    Lord Goldsmith, who was your attorney general back in those days, says that he warned you that this was a breach of international law, but that he was bullied into being quiet and convinced not to resign from the government. Is that an accurate portrayal?

    BLAIR: No, it’s not, but I think the best thing with this inquiry is actually to let us all give our evidence to the inquiry. And you know, I’ve been through these issues many, many times over the past few years and I’m very happy to go through them again. But I think probably the appropriate place to do that is in front of the inquiry.

    KING: Well, let me try one more on you. This is your former ambassador to the United States, Christopher Meyer, talking about your meeting with President Bush in Crawford, Texas, a meeting I covered some years ago. He says, “I know what the cabinet office says were the results of the meeting, but to this day, I’m not entirely clear what degree of convergence was if you like signed in blood at the Crawford ranch in Texas.”

    Your former ambassador saying essentially you came to visit President Bush and you came back and then within days were talking about the need for regime change in Iraq. Again, this is your reputation, your credibility being called into question. Is that an accurate portrayal?

    BLAIR: John, it’s been called into question many times over these past years about exactly these issues, all of which, as I say, have been gone over many times before.

    But I feel, because I’ll be giving evidence in the new year in front of the inquiry that it really is best rather that I respond to each and every news report or allegation, the best thing is to go in front of the inquiry, answer their questions, and I’m very, very happy to do so. I’ve always been happy to do so. You know, this is a situation where over the years, I’ve answered questions time and time again on it. And I’m happy to do so again. It’s an important decision. It was a very momentous decision in terms of your country and in terms of mine. But I think the appropriate place to look at all these issues is the inquiry itself.

    KING: Well let me then try and lastly this way. I’ll leave the specifics for when you testify to the inquiry, but if you pick up media accounts in your country, friends of yours are saying that you feel betrayed, that you feel your reputation is being damaged by men you bestowed high offices to in the government. Do you feel betrayed? Are you angry at how this is being done?

    BLAIR: Absolutely not. One of the things you learn as a leader in a country is you have the responsibility to take decisions. Some of those decisions are difficult decisions and some of them are very controversial. And what happens, your time in leadership goes on, and I spent 10 years as UK prime minister, is that these controversies, sometimes they can be very bitter, very difficult.

    That’s part of being a leader. And I think it was one of your presidents that once said if you can’t stand the heat, don’t come into the kitchen. And that’s my view of politics. So I take decisions, I stand by them, and as I say, these are all questions I’ve answered many times before. I’m happy to go through it again.

    KING: The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now special envoy to the Middle East. Mr. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time today.

    BLAIR: Thanks, John.


    RELATED

    • John Rentoul: “Blair is happy to go through it all again”
    • The Mail, in its usual way of leaking about/with leaks first broke with this Goldsmith letter story. Whether we can believe its interpretation of the “letter” from to Blair is another matter. Whether in itself it MEANS anything more than just putting down thoughts for consideration is yet another matter. Of course, even here the Tory supporting < Iraq war supporting Mail gets into its usual conspiracy theory mode. Titchy -too … we got you!
    • See also this note of caution  by Paul Waugh at The Evening Standard.
    • And just in case you were taking a breath in between the next Blair lambasting – hang on a minute! Peter McKay at The Mail leaks that David Manning tomorrow afternoon at the Iraq Inquiry might excite the tappers and scribblers even more. McKay asks “Will Tony Blair ever go on trial after the Chilcot Inquiry?” His answer, “No, cos it was the Tories wot helped him.” Oh my. Honesty from the Mail. Whatever next?



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