Blizzard can't stop Tony Blair from trying to cool Gaza conflict

The Right Honorable Tony Blair kept a crowd of 5,000 Bostonians waiting for an hour Monday evening.

The former British prime minister had a right and honorable reason, though, for his tardy delivery of the annual Issam M. Fares Lecture at Tufts University: Britain’s deepest snowfall in 18 years had snarled traffic and grounded flights Monday.

“Your snow looks worse and you seem to be functioning perfectly normal. Makes you wonder who’s been in charge all those years,” Blair said, warming up his audience with a bit of winter weather chit chat.

Then, it was onto hotter topics in hotter lands – namely, Gaza.

Blair, who for the past 15 months has served as Middle East envoy for the Quartet (US, United Nations, European Union, and Russia), set the stage for his talk by recounting an earlier visit to one of the region’s many holy sites. His guide, a Palestinian, lamented: “‘Moses, Jesus, Muhammad – why did they all have to come here?’”

The region’s Gordian knot of religion, politics, and history must be untangled soon, Blair said. “Resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the single most important thing we can do” to create peace in the region. “Nothing is more important.”

Blair will be working in coming weeks with President Barack Obama’s newly appointed envoy to the region, George Mitchell. The two men partnered previously on ending the conflict in Northern Ireland. As with Northern Ireland, Blair said, no progress will be made until the opposing sides both agree to lay down their weapons. Hamas must agree to a peaceful process.

Blair also said Western leaders must adopt ground rules that value all lives equally. “Do we care as much for the suffering of Palestinians as we do for the security of Israel?” he asked.

Following Blair’s 40-minute speech, the president of Tufts, Lawrence Bacow, selected several questions from students, including whether Blair still believes he had cause to support the invasion of Iraq.

Blair, who remains an embattled figure at home for his role in the war, didn’t answer the question directly, but said the evidence that was presented to him is publicly available and that people should review the evidence, then decide what they would have done. Blair also added: “I still don’t think the region would be more peaceful if Saddam and his two sons were running Iraq.”

Then, onto lighter topics. Although President Obama is famously tethered to his Blackberry device, Blair said he never had even a mobile phone as prime minister. It’s really exciting to have one,” he said, then addressing a question to the dignitaries on stage: “Do you guys text yet?”

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