Return to Transcripts main page


Tony Blair Talks Middle East Peace Hopes

Aired November 10, 2009 - 15:10:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: As President Obama pays tribute to the fallen at Fort Hood, he said that no religion, no faith could justify that violence. President Obama is also involved in another intractable religious dispute, and that is in the Middle East, where his efforts, U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal there have run into the sand. Is the U.S. stuck in a quagmire there? Is it time for a completely new approach to this and other religious conflicts?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to this program.

Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tonight seems to be as distant as ever, with the United States apparently right now incapable of kick-starting the negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the White House after dark yesterday without even the customary photo opportunity with President Obama, amid continuing tensions over his refusal to freeze all new settlement construction.

Israel's negotiating partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that he intends to resign, a move that could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and with it the entire peace process.

With divisions over the future of the holy land as deep as ever, there are those who say that a radically different approach is required, one that seeks common ground between the world's major faiths, even as world leaders continue their political mediation efforts.

And earlier, I spoke to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the Middle East peace envoy for the quartet of the U.N., the U.S., the E.U., and Russia. I spoke with him from the West Bank city of Ramallah.


AMANPOUR: I have to start by asking, because you've just been with Palestinian officials, including the prime minister. What is the status of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas? Is he going to resign, or is he going to stay in his position?

TONY BLAIR, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF BRITAIN: The honest answer to that is, I don't know. I know he has a great deal of support amongst the Palestinian people. I know he's very frustrated by the current situation.

But I also think and hope that -- that this is a situation in which we can find a way forward, because as I've seen for myself today, I mean, there is actually some good news happening amongst all the -- the challenges. And the Palestinian economy here on the West Bank is actually growing strongly.

AMANPOUR: We've got pictures of you at that ribbon-cutting ceremony today at that crossing into the Jenin area. Let me ask you, first of all, upgrading it to traffic for vehicles, you hope it'll increase business and other such things. But it's only a handful of these crossings that are open, with some hundreds more checkpoints. How much effect do you think this specifically will actually have?

BLAIR: Some of the key checkpoints we've now got open, so that is also increasing economic activity. There's a long way to go, but what we know, from the work that we've been doing here, particularly over the last year, is, one, where the Palestinians provide their own security, it is a dramatic improvement for the local people here and, secondly, when the Israelis then in response to that do lift some of the restrictions, the economy starts to move.

I know everyone looks at this situation in the moment and says, "Well, it's stalled. It's difficult. How are we going to make it move forward?" It is possible to move this forward. And, furthermore, we have no option but to carry on trying to do so.

AMANPOUR: You know, you've always been somebody who's very optimistic, but the question is this. You've also always said that your bottom-up economic development is also meant to be in tandem with top-down political negotiation. Given the fact that that isn't happening at all, even a meeting between the U.S. president and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was so controversial in the United States that not a single picture or anything was released about it, how is this actually going to work along the lines that you hope it will?


BLAIR: Well, again, let me just say why I think it is possible to unlock this and find the way forward. First of all, what has actually happened is also that the Israeli government, as well as the international community, America, and, of course, the Palestinians has accepted in principle a two-state solution. Secondly, actually, everyone accepts in principle there should be negotiations.

AMANPOUR: In the absence of -- of any diplomacy happening right now and with the will clearly not there, what do you think will be the effect? Because many of the Palestinian officials are saying that Mahmoud Abbas, who is one of the most credible and -- and popular Palestinian leaders, feels betrayed by all sides, not only his Israeli partners, but by the United States, and even Arab countries, as well, and that if he does, in fact, resign, it will completely collapse the Palestinian Authority. How can this move forward, if the Palestinian Authority is no longer viable?

BLAIR: Well, it is serious, which is precisely why we need to find a way, as I say, of unlocking the credibility of the negotiations and getting on with it, because there's no alternative. I mean, the alternative is a vacuum, and a vacuum is dangerous. And we've also got, which we haven't discussed so far, the problem of Gaza, where it is essential in my view that we get an approach that allows us to start to open up Gaza, to help the people there, to get the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier, and -- and to start to give some sense to the Palestinian people that this will be a Palestinian state, West Bank and Gaza.

AMANPOUR: There's obviously a great deal, also, of continued discontent on the West Bank, despite some of the improvements that you're talking about, including in the economy. You visited Hebron. It's another place where you're working. You visited a mosque. We've got the pictures of it. And there was some heckling and some general sort of dissatisfaction there. How did you take that?

BLAIR: Look, for a start, you know, it would be weird if people weren't discontented, given all the -- the problems and the challenges that there are. And -- and, incidentally, what happens in a visit like that is a one person shouts something and all the other people that are perfectly friendly are kind of ignored.

The fact is, yes, I mean, Hebron, you're talking about a settlement right in the heart of the old city of Hebron. I think a few hundred settlers, several thousand Palestinians, several thousand Israeli troops, it would be amazing if there isn't dissatisfaction and conflict.

But here's the thing: Even in Hebron, where some of the checkpoints have been opened, there is an improvement in the economy. If we could get certain other changes from the Israeli authorities, we could make a big difference in the economy there. There is an industrial part that we're trying to get sorted out just near Hebron. There are things we can do, but dissatisfaction, there's bound to be dissatisfaction until statehood is achieved.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about another business thing. One of the things that you're launching today is the Wataniya Telecoms, the -- the mobile phone company. But, apparently, it's not being given the bandwidth by the Israeli authorities to make it a viable business proposition. Is that so?

BLAIR: No, it wouldn't be launched if it wasn't viable, but it is true that, once they hit a certain level of subscribers, they'll have to have the extra bandwidth, and the Israeli government have assured me that they will be given it.

So I think, you know, again, this is a big step forward today to launch it. It's, I think, a $700 million investment over the next few years. It'll bring in revenues to the Palestinian Authority, about $300 million a year, so it's really, really important for the Palestinian Authority. The West Bank economy at the moment is probably growing -- probably, actually, in double digits.

Now, could it grow far more if more restrictions were lifted, if, for example, the weight of occupation was taken off the Palestinian people here? Yes, of course it could. But that depends on the international community. It depends on the Palestinian work on security continuing. And it depends on the goodwill of the Israeli government. And we've got to work for all three.

AMANPOUR: And in terms of your future, are you or anybody around you taking steps to make it possible for you to assume a new E.U. presidency, to be the president of the E.U.?

BLAIR: You know, when I was asked this question today, I said, look, I'm doing the job I'm doing at the moment. And the one thing I've learnt over a very long period in politics is don't speculate about things in the future, because who knows?

AMANPOUR: Are you taking yourself out of consideration?

BLAIR: No, I'm simply saying, Christiane, that when I'm here today in Palestine, working on the issues to do with the Palestinian economy and my quartet role, that's what I want to talk about. And when and if I want to talk about something else, I'll do it at a -- at a future moment, if you don't mind.

AMANPOUR: But surely, if you were E.U. president, part of your job right there would be made much easier. How does it sound, President Blair?


BLAIR: What it sounds right now for me is that, even though I know you very well, and this is the third time you've tried to put the question to me, it's my third time of not answering it, but concentrating on what I'm doing now. And I really understand why you're putting it to me, and I hope you kind of understand, if I can say so politely, why I'm just concentrating on this here today.

Because, actually, I do feel passionate about this and whatever happens in the future. This is really, really important for me, and I -- I intend to stick with it.

If -- if I had to point to one single thing that would make a difference to a secure and prosperous 21st century, in this part of the world, but actually far broader than this part of the world, it's resolving this issue. All the other things we're trying to do, even in places like Afghanistan, would be easier if we had a resolution of this issue. So this is what I'm working on.

AMANPOUR: And on that note, former Prime Minister Blair, thank you for joining us. And we'll be following the E.U. matter closely, as well.

BLAIR: Thanks, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: So a lot of food for thought for our next segment when we talk to our guests and different ways to help resolve conflict. Is that enough, though? Does compassion have to have a role? We'll have that next.


AMANPOUR: That was a flare-up of anger last month between Palestinians and Israeli police at one of the world's holiest sites in Jerusalem. It came amid rumors that Jewish extremists were planning to harm the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And it's the kind of violence that decades of diplomacy have simply failed to end.

But now, there is a new global initiative to resolve conflicts by emphasizing the shared values of people with different faiths. It's called the International Charter for Compassion. And joining me now is the driving force behind that charter, author and theologian Karen Armstrong. Also here with us in the studio is one of the religious leaders behind this movement, Rabbi David Saperstein.

So welcome to you both, Rabbi, Karen.


AMANPOUR: Let me go straight to our wall, where we are able to have one little clip of the charter, which basically says, "We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world." Let's cut to the chase. We have what we just showed from Israel and the Palestinian territories. We have President Obama, who's just been eulogizing and speaking about those who were shot at the military base at Fort Hood, Texas.

Can compassion really make a dent in this deeply entrenched religious, ethnic tension?

KAREN ARMSTRONG, AUTHOR, "THE CASE FOR GOD": I think that when things are as bad as they are now, we have to make a counter voice. So often what -- the voice of religion that we hear on our media is the voice of extremism, the voice of hatred, the voice of disapproval, and yet there is another voice, and it's -- it's not -- it's not being heard. So the charter is to make that voice audible.


AMANPOUR: Why is it different from what happened after 9/11, when many leaders -- there were interfaith leaders, rabbis, imams, priests, others, presidents, prime ministers, talking about, can't we just all get along, interfaith, respect each other?

ARMSTRONG: Well, it's not going to happen unless we make an effort. And the charter is basically -- it's a call to action. It's not just a question of saying that, yes, we share these values and we fall into each other's arms, but that we actually give directives as to how we actually implement the golden rule in -- in our troubled world.

AMANPOUR: So as we show pictures of President Obama now live at Fort Hood, he's going past each of the symbols of a fallen soldier, the empty boots, the rifle, the helmet placed on top of the rifle. Rabbi, how do you think that compassion is going to make a difference? We know -- it's lovely. We'd love it. The golden rule, we all would like to live by it. But in instances like this...

SAPERSTEIN: The only way to isolate extremists who would manipulate religion to justify violence is to mobilize the mainstream, centrist belief in tolerance, in respect, in moderation, and -- and compassion that is at the core of so many religious traditions.

This charter that will be launched in two days takes some the leading religious figures from all across the globe. They reinforce and legitimize each other. They help create and mobilize a force for compassion that really can change the political dynamic, as well as the discourse going on in the world, and that's indispensable.

AMANPOUR: You both mentioned golden rule. I have, too. Is that the foundation of -- of what you're talking about?

ARMSTRONG: Every single one of the major world faiths has established its own version of the golden rule and said that this is the core of faith, not believing things, not accepting a certain sexual ethnic, but that one puts oneself in a principle, disciplined way in the shoes of another person.

AMANPOUR: So let's take -- well, we're going to start with Hinduism. This is the sum of duty, to not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. There's also the Buddhist one -- well, Christianity. And as he would (ph), let's -- my religious is kindness, say the Buddhists, eminently practical. But we get the picture, that in each religion, there is the same thing.

ARMSTRONG: This -- this -- and it's -- you do it, as Confucius said, all day and every day, not just doing your good deed for the day, but you live a life of empathy, because that takes us beyond ourselves. We look into our own heart, find what it is that gives us pain, and then refuse under any circumstance to inflict that pain on anybody else.

AMANPOUR: And how does that work? I understand how that works between people. How does that work between -- between nations, between political groups? Let's take the Israelis and the Palestinians, for instance.

SAPERSTEIN: The -- the studies and polls show that there's been alarming trend of each side demonizing each other. You asked before, Mr. Blair, don't we have to work from the top down and the bottom up? The bottom up is not just economic; it's what is taught in the schools about the other. It is what is legitimate in civil discourse about -- in presenting those with whom they disagree. It is talking about the human face of every person and seeing God's presence in every human being.

Only when we begin to tear down the demonic images we have of each other and see the common human state that exists in each and every one of us can we really make a transformation from the ground up. And this effort to focus on compassion, on capturing the -- the divine character of every human being, and seeing human beings for what they are, that's central to the success of transforming the Middle East and so many other conflicts across the globe.

AMANPOUR: Now, I believe that you are involved in the President Obama's interfaith White House group. I just want to put up something that the Army chief of staff, General George Casey, told CNN just a few days ago.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: We have to be careful, because we can't jump to conclusions now based on little snippets of information that come out. And, frankly, I am worried -- not worried, but I'm concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers.


AMANPOUR: Of course, he was there talking about the aftermath and the -- and the fallout from Fort Hood, and General Casey did give a eulogy there today. What do you think? Is this going to be 9/11 again, when all the work that was done on compassion, on tolerance, on personal relations here in the United States between Americans and -- and -- and the Muslim world, could that all be reversed, or is this an opportunity?

ARMSTRONG: We're going to have a roller coaster ride, I think. Violent -- we're in a violent time. But this is the time to practice. It means that every time we have something like this, we have to take -- hold ourselves in our hands, refer to the golden rule, and make that voice -- we have to make an effort at -- the Dalai Lama says that, when things are difficult, this is the time to practice.


AMANPOUR: Let me just again be devil's advocate. God inserted in politics has more or less created mayhem. We could look all over the world. And yet you are again invoking God, or at least God-like principles, to try to calm all this down.


AMANPOUR: Go ahead, both of you.

ARMSTRONG: God-like principles, but once you start thinking of God in a limited way, as inherently on our side, as a larger version of ourselves, writ large, with likes and dislikes, similar to our own, this is an idol that we use to endorse some of our worst prejudices. So compassion takes us beyond that self.

And, David, you were going...

SAPERSTEIN: Well, you know, one of the great sins, I think, both in our religious traditions and in America's value system is to impute the sins of the individual to a group. That's really the danger of -- of what General Casey was talking about. And compassion, seeing the human and divine character of every person, really, it will not solve the problems in and of themselves. Without that, without capturing that as a powerful force in religion, to stand up to the extremists, we will never succeed in what we're doing.

AMANPOUR: Again, I want to show some pictures from Fort Hood, where families are -- are gathering, and it's obviously a very emotional time for them, to -- to try to figure out how to get beyond this and if there is a religious element to it.

As people, you have said, others have said, trying to embrace or empower the moderates, do you think this is another way to try and do that?

ARMSTRONG: I think. Yes -- David?

SAPERSTEIN: Definitely. That's what this is all about, to have such prestigious figures, from the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu and leaders of every religious tradition, joining together to lift up the central principle, that's a powerful message to the world.

ARMSTRONG: Also, hundreds and thousands of people contributed to the charter, contributed their ideas online. This is not just something -- yet another arcane document foisted -- it's coming from the ground up.

AMANPOUR: So you -- you hope that it's going to be grassroots. And can it? Do you think grassroots or putting it up on the Internet, however you're going to try to get as many people involved as possible? Because, you know, here in the United States, I was surprised, pleasantly, during the election campaign the whole morality or immorality about what was going on in Darfur inspired so many American students. It became a grassroots movement. Do you think this could sort of be catching like that?

ARMSTRONG: I think, wherever I've been in the world, whether it's in the United States, in Europe, or in the Middle East or Pakistan, I find people, ordinary people, are longing for a more compassionate world. They feel offended that their religion is often hijacked by extremists. There is a desire for this, but it won't just come in a waft of goodwill. This is going to be hard work, and I shall be doing this to my dying day, I think.

SAPERSTEIN: And when this was announced, we had people -- and put online pieces of it, we had people from all over the world, from over 100 countries, every religious tradition adding their ideas, giving their edits, setting these principles, lifting it up. This is truly a global phenomenon, this compassion charter.

AMANPOUR: So does this have to bottom up, or does the pope, a senior Islamic leader, senior Jewish leaders, do they have to internalize this and give the directives?

SAPERSTEIN: Like your assessment of the Middle East, it's both. It needs the legitimacy of the key figures in the world.

AMANPOUR: Do you think they will?

SAPERSTEIN: Many have already done it. When you look at this list on Thursday when it's announced, it's dazzling. But the power of the creativity from the grassroots up that was part of this online discussion for months, that was really something extraordinary.

AMANPOUR: You're a former Catholic nun, Karen.


AMANPOUR: Will the pope sign on?

ARMSTRONG: I don't suppose so.

AMANPOUR: Because?

ARMSTRONG: I think -- I think he would be wary of something to do with a runaway nun.

AMANPOUR: But in general, compassion is a charter?

ARMSTRONG: Yes. I think there are many Catholics who want to join, and I think, too, the -- we don't -- I don't think we need to worry about the pope. The pope could have done this himself, if he'd wanted to. The - - I think what we need in the democratic age is for the people to say, "We -- this is what we desire. This is -- this is the essence of"...


SAPERSTEIN: Karen, Karen, correct me if I'm wrong, the pope rarely signs on statements that others do. He has put out his own moral vision in -- in very challenging ways here. I suspect we'll find millions of Catholics who connect and resonate with this and many prominent Catholic leaders endorsing it.

AMANPOUR: Thank you both for coming in on this particular day, when this issue is in such stark relief. Thank you both very much, indeed.


And this conversation will continue on Tell us what you think about conflict, religion and compassion.

And next in our "Post-Script," it's about efforts to end decades of hostility between Iran and the United States. Take a look at the man in the glasses here. This former American hostage seen here just after his release by Tehran some 30 years ago is now the holder of a significant new job.


AMANPOUR: Now, our "Post-Script." And we have a quick note about one of our guests last week.

I interviewed a former U.S. hostage who'd be held for more than a year in Iran. His name is John Limbert. I interviewed them on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. And he told me then that it is possible for the U.S. and Iran to get over the ghosts of the past.

Well, we've learned that Limbert has just taken up a new post in the U.S. government as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran. It's a completely new position, and it raises the intriguing question of whether the Obama administration will revive active diplomacy in search of an end to 30 years of hostility between the two nations.

And that's our report from now. We will be back tomorrow with a look at one of the most pressing issues of our time, nuclear proliferation. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.