Bush owes Blair a big one

One of the ironic travesties of history is that Yasser Arafat, who mismanaged the Palestinians' aspirations for peace, got a Nobel peace prize, but Tony Blair, who's done as much as any living politician to get that cause back on track, probably won't.

Mr. Blair, Britain's prime minister, came to Washington earlier this month, the first foreign leader to bask in the glow of newly reelected President Bush. It was appropriate. Blair, in the face of much dissent at home, has put his political career on the line to support the US in Iraq. That puts Mr. Bush deeply in Blair's debt. It also knocks Blair out of contention for any Nobel, should that thought ever have flickered across anybody's mind. But Blair has also been spunky about constantly nagging his good American buddy to get cracking on the Palestinian-Israeli peace problem. That may have irritated some in the Bush administration, who put it on the back burner while Mr. Arafat, the man they could not deal with, was alive and calling the shots for the Palestinians. But Blair, gutsy on Iraq, is gutsy too on pushing Bush to move on the Palestinian-Israeli divide. Blair sees it as a central factor in Islamic disaffection with the West.

They are an odd couple, this Labour Party prime minister and conservative president, but they have forged an Anglo-American relationship every bit as meaningful as that in earlier times of crisis between Thatcher and Reagan, or Churchill and Roosevelt. Both were misled - as were the leaders of other nations - by speculative intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But both have been unapologetic about ridding the world of Saddam Hussein.

Some of Blair's critics have derided him as "Bush's poodle." However, he's no one's man but his own when he speaks with extraordinary passion about mankind's right to liberty, as he did in an address to the United States Congress last year. His voice trembling with emotion, Blair declared: "We are fighting for the inalienable right of humankind to be free. Free not to bend your knee to any man in fear. It's a battle worth fighting."

It is the same kind of passion that infuses Bush when he speaks of his mission to spread democracy. It is the common bond that binds them.

Although Britons fought a lonely battle for some time in World War II to rid the world of Adolf Hitler, they have not afforded Blair, in the case of Saddam Hussein, the same unity of support they then gave Winston Churchill. It is an omission Blair accepts as the price of principle. "I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor," he told his countrymen in a London speech last year. "But sometimes it is the price of leadership and cost of conviction."

So there are two reasons for Bush to respond to Blair's constant drumbeat on the Palestinian problem. First, Bush owes a great deal to this first among allies who have supported him. Second, because Blair is right. This is the moment for everybody - the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Europeans, other Arab states in the Middle East, and Bush - to expend their political capital on a new drive for peace between a secure Israel and a stable Palestinian state.

The Palestinians must curb terrorism against Israel and hold elections that, while not producing Jeffersonian democracy overnight, will at least produce a regime that gives promise of stability and peaceful intent. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, hardly a liberal poster boy himself, must carry his critical right wing to concessions involving a military pullback from Palestinian areas and support for the coming Palestinian electoral process.

Everybody understands that the commitment and resolve of the US is essential if any of this is to take place. Nobody suggests that it is going to be easy, or necessarily successful. It is going to take a lot of baby-step confidence-building and the erosion of a mountain of distrust. But the alternative is more waves of suicide bombing, and a continuation of the violence and anguish that has bedeviled the relationship between Arabs and Israelis for decades. Surely the time has come to declare a moratorium on this senselessness.

With Prime Minister Blair at his side at the White House, President Bush said there is a "great chance" to establish a Palestinian state. But he made clear the new Palestinian leadership must undertake political and economic reforms and overhaul their security services. "We'll hold their feet to the fire to make sure that democracy prevails," he warned.

It was a good day for Tony Blair.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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