The Good Ambassador

“The experience and wisdom of Oliver Miles and his calibre of diplomat are now sorely needed by countries which are feeling shocked, insulted and betrayed by the calamitous service they are enduring from a negligent and ignorant new breed of foreigner   The crass blunderings of the recent US and British ambassadors to Libya are a disgrace to their office; and cause of deep concern if they are indicators of  international relations at a time of spiralling suspicion and paranoia. These two representatives alone have achieved much in undoing any sincere but fragile trust which might have been gradually established by dedicated servants such as Oliver Miles . A fine tradition as well as world harmony is at stake. Countries such as Libya deserve the best minds and hearts in their hour of need. They must never be short-changed.

( NB. Oliver Miles has roundly criticised the appointment and performance of Tony Blair who has failed in his role as peace envoy. On Tony Blair. The retired ambassador’s voice is consistently fair, well-informed and – most importantly for  a communicator- engaged!)”  Penstorm.

From The Guardian

Balfour revisited by Oliver Miles, former UK ambassador to Libya. May 2008
“Ninety years ago, Britain made incompatible promises in the Middle East. The US is making the same mistake today

Last week some new evidence surfaced about the events which triggered the open letter to Tony Blair from 52 retired British ambassadors in April 2004. Washington has repeated the mistakes Britain made over Palestine 90 years ago.

A week before we wrote the letter, in a press conference in the White House rose garden with prime minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, President Bush had compromised the long-established position that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal and an obstacle to peace. It is widely agreed that small adjustments to the pre-1967 borders of Israel may have to be negotiated, because the borders are merely old ceasefire lines.

But the emphasis is on “negotiated”: this would be part of a peace deal. Bush went much further: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

A couple of days later it was Tony Blair’s turn in the rose garden. Blair was asked about the settlements question, and his answer was fuzzy: “We welcome the Israeli proposal to disengage from the Gaza and parts of the West Bank.” This was the George and Tony show, when George paid Tony his highest compliment: “As we like to say in Crawford, he’s a stand-up kind of guy.” Tony just glowed.

We wrote in our open letter to Blair that “the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood. Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it.”

Events last week have made what happened a bit clearer. In an interview in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on April 20, Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, referred to the negotiations launched at Annapolis three months ago and said: “It was clear from day one to Abbas, Rice and Bush that construction would continue in population concentrations – the areas mentioned in Bush’s 2004 letter … I say this again today: Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Ze’ev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. It’s clear that these areas will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement.” (Olmert was referring to what Bush had called “existing major Israeli population centres” in the occupied territories.)

What is this 2004 letter? An article in the Washington Post of April 24 by Glenn Kessler quoted from a letter which he said Bush delivered personally to Sharon in 2004: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949” – the same form of words Bush used in the rose garden with Sharon.

Kessler continued that Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weissglas, said in a recent interview that he later negotiated a “verbal understanding” with deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams that would permit new construction in key settlements; Rice and Sharon then approved the Weissglas-Abrams deal. But US officials continue to say that no such agreement exists.

According to the same report, Daniel Kurtzer, who was the US ambassador to Israel in 2004, said he argued at the time against accepting the Weissglas proposal. “I thought it was a really bad idea,” he said. “It would legitimise the settlements, and it gave them a blank cheque.” In the end, Kurtzer said the White House never followed up with the plan to define construction lines. “Washington lost interest in it when it became clear it would not be easy to do,” he said.

Last week President Bush said at a press conference with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas: “I assured the president that a Palestinian state is a high priority for me and my administration – a viable state, a state that doesn’t look like Swiss cheese.” Bush knows that Israeli settlements are not just illegal, they make a viable Palestinian state impossible, as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

So the US administration has made the classic mistake of simultaneously undertaking incompatible obligations to the various parties to the dispute: to the Israelis retention of their major settlements, to the Palestinians a state that doesn’t look like a Swiss cheese. The British 90 years ago made incompatible promises to three parties, the Jews, the Arabs and the French. The results are with us yet.”

Oliver Miles

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