Former British Prime Minister and special Middle East envoy Tony Blair spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington Thursday about the prospects for peace in the region. Mr. Blair spoke just days ahead of a closely-watched visit to the White House Monday by new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Tony Blair spoke to the Senate in his role as the envoy for the Quartet of Middle East mediators. The former prime minister was strongly optimistic, saying he believes this is a "moment of opportunity" for all of those who support a "two-state solution", of an Israeli state and a Palestinian state co-existing as peaceful neighbors.
"President Obama has made it very clear that this is a strategic priority for the United States to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution," said Tony Blair. "This is an issue that Secretary of State Clinton is very familiar with and understands and knows deeply."
Mr. Blair acknowledged the formidable obstacles to a negotiated settlement, including internal Palestinian divisions and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements into areas the Palestinians want to include in their state. He called on both sides to show by their actions that they want to take advantage of what he described as a "window of opportunity" to get back on a path towards peace by the end of this year.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Democrat John Kerry agreed that all the parties need to seize the moment, saying most Arab states have now agreed to recognize the existence of Israel and to the principle of land for peace.
"The simple reality is the regional dynamic of the Middle East have shifted," said John Kerry. "And today, most Arab governments are more concerned about Iran than they are about Israel."
Ahead of Monday's first meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, some analysts have said the Israeli leader is likely to want to focus on Iran and the nuclear threat it represents, while Mr. Obama may want to press on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Blair said the two issues are intertwined and must be viewed as as part of one big picture.
"That's why I say to people you can't separate these questions out," he said. "In my view, it's a mistake and actually a very fundamental one to do so. That if we want to make progress also on the Iranian question, and take that to a peaceful resolution, then progress in the Israel-Palestine question is an important part of doing that."
Mr. Blair said he believes it makes sense for the United States to try to engage with Iran, but cautioned that other countries should respond in kind when President Obama reaches out to them.
"What the president requires are people that are willing when he reaches his hand out to them to reach back, and not merely to take his hand and say that is really good of you," said Tony Blair.
This will be a busy month for Middle East diplomacy for President Obama. After meeting with the Israeli leader, he will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.