Middle East envoy Tony Blair said Thursday that he believes President Barack Obama launched his peace initiative out of concern for what might happen to Israel if Palestinian statehood is endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly.
Speaking to an audience of Middle East-focused business leaders at London's Royal Institution, the former British prime minister said that Obama was "frankly worried about the position that Israel is in."
Blair described Obama's initiative _ rejected by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu _ as "an attempt to fill a vacuum which he sees as dangerous, particularly dangerous for Israel in the run-up to September," when the assembly is expected to take up the issue of Palestinian statehood during the U.N.'s annual meeting.
Such a vote would be potentially damaging for the United States and Israel. Although the move is largely symbolic _ the U.S. can veto any such move in the Security Council _ a lopsided vote in the General Assembly would leave Washington looking isolated while rallying anti-Israel sentiment in Europe and elsewhere.
It's with an eye toward avoiding an embarrassing diplomatic showdown in New York that Obama has tried to prod both parties back to the bargaining table. Last week, the president endorsed Israel's 1967 boundaries _ with mutually agreed land swaps enabling Israel to keep some settlements _ as the basis for a future Palestine in a bid to re-energize the anemic peace process. And at a recent news conference in London the president warned Palestinians that "to take the United Nations route, rather than the path of sitting down and talking with the Israelis, is a mistake."
Blair, who represents the Quartet of Mideast mediators _ the U.S., the EU, the United Nations and Russia _ didn't explicitly say what he thought the consequences of U.N.-backed Palestinian statehood might be. But he seemed to predict a rough ride ahead.
"I do think, especially with what's coming up in September ... we're going to live in interesting times."
Blair was speaking alongside Ronald Cohen, the founder of The Portland Trust, a nonprofit devoted to promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians through economic development.
The Portland Trust: http://www.portlandtrust.org/
Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael
(This version corrects title of Ronald Cohen in last paragraph.)