Netanyahu meets Tony Blair

The inescapable conclusion from reading the full text of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech on Islamic extremism on Wednesday in London is that it could have been an address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This will of course be seen as great news in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. For those around the world who despise either (or both) of the two men, this is further proof – if needed – that Blair has long ago crossed over to the dark side. It’s not only his dichotomy of the forces of enlightenment fighting the forces trying to plunge the world into a new dark age – but also his policy prescriptions proposed that tally with official and unofficial Israeli policies.

Seven years after leaving office, Blair is still more capable of arousing emotions than any serving British politician, and he is obviously the last inhabitant of 10 Downing Street to have much stature on the international stage. It’s rather unclear right now what responsibilities or influence, if any, he still has as the envoy of the international Quartet on the Middle East, though he is still involved in economic development aspects of the peace process. But the headlines his speech garnered in the media and the fact that he is one of the more experienced – and controversial – players in the diplomatic arena, warrant attention to what he had to say.

It’s hard to argue with the three basic fundamentals of Blair’s speech: 1) That despite the much vaunted Obama “pivot” to Asia and the deepening unrest in Ukraine, the Middle East remains a central source of tension throughout the world. 2) That religion plays a central role in global politics and diplomacy. 3) That Islamic extremism is a dangerous and an anti-democratic force endangering peace and stability, not only in the region but much wider afield.

Blair’s conclusion is that despite the internecine bloodshed between Sunnis and Shias in various spots around the Middle East is that “at one level the ideology coming out of Shia Iran and that of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood may seem to be different, in reality they amount to the same thing with the same effect.” From this overriding view, Blair derives his positions on the various flashpoints throughout the region and beyond.

As for Egypt, Blair unequivocally supports the new military-backed government, branding last year’s coup as a revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to overtake the country’s “traditions and institutions.” Just as Netanyahu has quietly urged the Obama administration to back the new Egyptian regime, Blair calls for the international community to support it.

On Syria, Blair’s attitude once again mirrors Israel’s take, saying that “both Assad staying and the opposition taking over seem bad options.” He advocates both military intervention to force Assad to negotiate, and a policy “making it clear that the extremist groups should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations.” And likewise he identifies Iran as a major player in Syria which has “activated Hezbollah on the side of Assad.”

And on Iran itself, Netanyahu has nothing to complain about Blair’s preferred policy. He is against any “containment” prescription, making it clear that Iran must “step back from being a nuclear threshold state” and rejecting any view of a moderation in Tehran insisting that “the Iranian government plays a deliberately destabilizing role across the region” and that “we should at every opportunity, push back against the use of their power to support extremism.” And despite the fact that Russia is a staunch ally of both Iran and Syria, Blair, instead of criticizing the Kremlin, prefers to identify Moscow as a potential ally in the battle against Islamic extremism. His positions are straight out of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman’s foreign policy playbook.

Even where it directly regards Israel and the peace process with the Palestinians, Blair could barely have been more favorable to the current government in Jerusalem. He has not a word of criticism, no mention of the settlements or the possible threat of sanctions and boycott if the process continues to stagnate. Of course, Blair thinks Israel-Palestine peace is immensely important but chiefly because it would be “a victory for the very forces we should support.” Moreover, Blair is seeking to change one of the diplomatic sureties that has long underlined much of the Middle East diplomatic efforts: “Now it may be that after years of it being said that solving this question is the route to solving the regions’ problems, we’re about to enter a new phase where solving the region’s problems is a critical part of solving the Israeli- Palestinian issue.” That’s it, a perfect reiteration of the Netanyahu view that the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians is, overall, a result of the lack of democracy in the Arab world.

Many will say, with a great deal of justification, that Blair’s view is a gross simplification of the issues; that he is prepared to forgive authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia (which he didn’t mention even once in the speech, despite it being an Islamic theocracy), overlooks the role of Hamas (also not mentioned) and the religious extremism of Jewish settlers in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And of course, Blair is no longer an active politician; he does not direct foreign policy of any country. But the fact that he has not only painted such a stark us-against-them but clearly placed Israel as a central part of the Western alliance facing Islamic extremism will be hard to ignore.