The day before Tony Blair turns up in Washington to give yet another demonstration of support for the mess Bush is making of Iraq, we have the spectacle of Bush and Sharon tearing up the “roadmap for peace”, one of the key elements on which Blair sold the Iraq war to the British Labour Party, and Bush endorsing Sharon’s plans to annex most of the West Bank. It’s hard to imagine that Blair could stand for such a gratuitous insult, but equally hard to imagine him doing anything about it.
Instead, I imagine Blair’s spin doctors will produce some rationalisation along the lines that, since everyone knew that the Palestinian “right of return” was no more than a bargaining chip that would have to be dealt away in a final settlement, and everyone also knew that the Israelis would get to retain some West Bank settlements, nothing fundamental has changed. Better still, we’re finally getting an actual withdrawal from (most of) Gaza.
Like all good spin, this isn’t so implausible that it can be dismissed out of hand. After all, the withdrawal from Gaza is a bird in the hand, while the fact that Sharon’s plans have the endorsement of a US President with a year of his term left to run doesn’t make those plans a final settlement. No-one outside the US will recognise it. Even Bush may be forced, in the end, to exploit the ambiguities noted above and to say that he only meant the handful of settlements envisaged in the Clinton or Geneva plans. It’s perfectly possible that having withdrawn from Gaza, Sharon will find, in six months or so, that he hasn’t really gained anything of lasting value.
But, right now, six months is an awfully long time. This deal, following on the assassination of Yassin, could scarcely have been better calculated to promote the interests of the Coalition’s enemies in Iraq or Blair’s critics at home.
And after the verbal tricks both Bush and Blair have played for the past few years, there’s no reason for anyone, anywhere, to give them the benefit of the doubt on something like this. If it looks like annexation, and quacks like annexation, it probably is annexation. Certainly, it’s annexation and not the Clinton plan that Sharon is selling to Likud.
I could be wrong. Perhaps Blair will denounce the whole deal, and make his denunciation stick, for example, by threatening to pull British troops out of Iraq. If so, I’ll be the first to cheer for him. But if, as I expect, we get nothing more than mealy-mouthed expressions of regret (if that!), it will be time for the Labour Party to elect a new leader.
Update: When I wrote this, I hadn’t seen Blair’s statement, which is even more mealy-mouthed than I expected.