Dan Raviv, Senior Washington Correspondent for i24 News: Good morning, everyone. Few people have more experience working on issues surrounding the Middle East than our next guest. It's the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Oh, wait till he comes out.
As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he was a staunch supporter of Israel and then he served as the special envoy of the Quartet, we'll explain, where he worked tirelessly for promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And today, he continues to look for new ways to promote peace and understanding between Arabs and Israelis. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Honourable Tony Blair.
Tony Blair: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.
Dan Raviv: Well, first, welcome, of course, and thank you for coming to the AIPAC Policy Conference. As a reminder to everyone, Tony Blair was the longest serving British prime minister in modern times, 10 years. Wow. That was 1997 to 2007. And now, I'm tempted to say who is from the UK, and I know some of you are. A firm ally of the United States, Mr. Blair was after the shock of 9/11, and we thank you very much for your support for the United States at that time.
Tony Blair: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Dan Raviv: And now, we express our solidarity with Britain after the shocking attack on the Houses of Parliament this past Wednesday. We stand with you.
Tony Blair: Thank you.
Dan Raviv: Now, from 2007 to 2015, you were the Quartet representative. That's not a musical thing. I believe that you were the person on the scene exploring Israeli-Palestinian peace possibilities for the Quartet, which is the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and Russia. Now, among other things, you're still trying to help the world through a non-profit company, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. That's about right. We brought you up to date.
Okay. As a newsman, I was with CBS for years and years, including in the London bureau and covering the Middle East, now with i24 News, we keep up with what you're trying to do. You're trying to forge good or useful relations between Israel and Arab nations. We're noticing that. Now, is that bearing fruit? How much can you reveal about that effort? How's it going?
Tony Blair: Well, first of all, Dan, thank you very much and it's great to be here at this extraordinary gathering of AIPAC. And I'd like to congratulate AIPAC on the great work it does for Israeli-American relations.
So this is a huge passion of mine. When I go back to Israel the week after next, it will be my 178th visit since leaving office. I mean, it's not a hardship posting, by the way, because it's a great country and I've come to love it very much. So essentially, what I think is that we're not going to reach peace in the old way. We need a new way forward. And that, to me, is based on three basic principles. The first is that the security of the state of Israel is not just an Israeli interest or, indeed, an American interest. It is a global interest for the security of all the nations of the world.
Secondly, it requires, however, a different approach to reach peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the key to that approach, in my view today, lies in the relationship with the region. Today, there are common strategic interests and common objectives that are shared between Israel and the Arab nations, and what I work on is based on this fundamental belief that the key to transforming the Middle East, and therefore to a more peaceful world, is to have a relationship between Israelis and Arabs, which it can be open, above the table, acknowledged, in which Israel's right to exist is accepted, in which Israel works closely with Arab states, and in which two states for two peoples can be pursued in a way that guarantees Israel's security.
Dan Raviv: All right. That's a goal. But how is it going? What progress can you reveal to us?
Tony Blair: So here's the thing that I think is fascinating. Look, sometimes out of chaos can come opportunity. And the truth is the whole of this region, the best way of looking at it, in my view, is to say that the region is essentially gauged in a transition and a struggle for two essential things, religiously tolerant societies, because today, religious intolerance or politics based on a warped view of religion, is only destructive, and secondly, ruled-based economies. In other words, places where if you work hard and do well and play by the rules, you can achieve success.
That is the struggle that's going on all over the Middle East. The opposition to it comes from Shia extremism promoted by Iran, Sunni extremism from the Muslim Brotherhood all the way through ISIS and other groups. And the truth is today, the Arab nations have a common interest in Israel in fighting this extremism.
So what I would like to see as a new alliance in the Middle East, a strategic partnership with the leadership of the United States of America in which we say this is what the battle for the Middle East is about. It's a battle against extremism in favour of mutual respect to cross boundaries of race and faith and culture. And if we want the Middle East to succeed, we need to base this new partnership not just on interests, but on basic human values of dignity, respect, and tolerance for all.
Dan Raviv: And how is it going? I'm pressing you to reveal whether there's true progress.
Tony Blair: Yeah. I think it is going well, actually. I think there is every possibility now. Of course, there are security relationships in the Middle East. But I want this to be more than about security. You know, of course the security is important.
But I tell you what else is important. The economy is important. You know, if you think what would happen today in the Middle East if Israel was in the position economically to cooperate with its Arab neighbours, it would be massive; huge benefits to both groups. I think we need cooperation in civic society as well so that people from Israel and people in the Arab nations are mixing together.
Dan Raviv: But is this happening, Mr. Blair?
Tony Blair: It's happening, but it needs to happen much more. And the key to that is you cannot get this new relationship unless the Palestinian issue is managed and dealt with and put at least on a path to resolution.
Dan Raviv: Well, you're an expert on that too. Recently, an IRA leader, a man of violence, Martin McGuiness died. And you were quoted as saying that what made McGuiness such a formidable foe—or as you would have said, formidable foe—also made him a formidable peacemaker. So do the Palestinians have leaders like that, or is there an absence or vacuum of leadership and that's a hindrance to peace efforts?
Tony Blair: Well, I think we do need to see how we encourage a new generation of leaders. The Palestinians I work with in different parts of Palestinian society I think do have a genuine desire for peace. But we're going to have to create, I think, a new set of circumstances. In other words, up to now, people have thought if you do a peace deal, then the circumstances will change. I think it's the other way around. I think we need to change the context for peace-making and then we're better able to make peace.
Dan Raviv: Now, you mentioned that you're going to Israel again soon and nearly 200 trips. So obviously, your efforts to be involved haven't stopped. But why all the trips to Israel?
Tony Blair: Because, obviously, one part of this—and by the way, I'm also in the rest of the region once or twice a month. One part of this is I tend to operate under the radar as much as—obviously, this is not under the radar; this is rather of the radar. But it's all about trying to find a common way forward. And that opportunity is so—I can see it there at the moment and I think as Ron Dermer was saying when he addressed you earlier, there is a changing mood.
And when you look around the region today, you can feel this change happening even amidst the chaos. But just to be very clear with you, in my view, in the end, the key is to be able to get an open relationship between Israelis and Arabs and that will have to come through, as I think the Israeli government accepts, through a process of engaging on the Palestinian issue also.
Dan Raviv: Now, Mr. Blair, you heard Ambassador Dermer earlier, as you mentioned, and when you travel to Israel, the leaders say the looming threat of Iran, which, since the Iran nuclear deal hasn't stopped its missile program, its aid to terrorist groups, what should the West do about Iran?
Tony Blair: Be firm. Stand up and make sure that—but it's a very simple thing. If you had a benign regime in Iran, all of the problems of the Middle East would be easier to resolve. That's the reality. And what we've got to do, I think, are two things. We've got to push back hard where their power is being abused, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in the Gulf, in, for example, the work that they try and do with the Palestinians to pull Palestinian factions away from peace. So you've got to push back hard.
But the other thing we've got to do is expose what is actually happening. You know, the fact is, for example, even with a country like Bahrain, it's under a constant attempt from Iran to destabilise it. One of the things we've got to do is get much more out on the front foot here and expose what is actually happening. And then, I think you can rally Western opinion to a good and strong position.
Dan Raviv: All right. We only have about half a minute. Big question. Surveying the region, what gives you cause for hope and optimism?
Tony Blair: So the cause for hope and optimism is that I think that despite everything that you read and hear, there is actually a majority in favour of those principles of tolerance and rule-based economies. You know, when I look around the region today, okay, you won't read this in the headlines, but you look at the UAE, for example, which is in every single poll the place where most young Arabs want to be or want to live.
You look at Abu Dhabi and Dubai, major international cities. You look at even Doha now preparing for the 2022 World Cup. You take, for example, Jordan, a country that is, with all its problems, finding a way forward to the future despite the refugees. You look at the reforms happening in Egypt today, and again, for all the challenges, the Muslim Brotherhood government has been removed and we've actually got the possibility of peace with Egypt and not just with Israel, but with the region.
And if you want a cause for hope in the region, well, Israel is a cause for hope. So the fact is this is a place I've got to know well and I just want to say this, Dan. It's so important that we get this message across not just in America, but in Europe as well. The Israel I know is the Israel represented by that film of Shimon Peres and that young boy Yousef. It's an Israel that is creative, innovative, dynamic, where its politics are argumentative, full of disputes, full of differences where if you have three people in a room, you've got four different opinions. But my God, is it vibrant and capable, and what it's created is amazing.
Now, at its best, that Israel is a symbol for the region of open-mindedness, tolerance, and willingness to work with others. Now, if we could take that out and move that across the whole region, think of what we could achieve. So that's the cause for hope in the region. That is the Israel that I've come to know and to love and to support and that's why I'm going to carry on after the 178th visit making many more.
Dan Raviv: Ladies and gentlemen, Tony Blair.
Tony Blair: Thank you.
Dan Raviv: Thanks so much.