Column: We need a new congress of Berlin
Robert Skidelsky
Guardian | Saturday, November 18, 2006

There is still time for Tony Blair to go out in a blaze of glory, if he spends the last six months of his premiership trying to repair the damage he has helped to cause in Iraq - an estimated 600,000 dead since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, 200,000 attributable to coalition action. The best hope for this ill-conceived military intervention was always that it might disrupt the malign routines of Middle Eastern politics sufficiently for something constructive to happen. With the humbling of the Anglo-American forces in Iraq, the defeat of Bush and Blair's insane ambition to remake the Muslim world in the west's image, and the restoration of some kind of balance of power in the Middle East, the time has come for a bold new initiative.
 
Blair pointed the way in his recent Guildhall speech by acknowledging that a settlement in Iraq required a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and talking to Iran and Syria, ie that it needed to be part of a "whole Middle East" peace settlement. A traditional mechanism for achieving this result exists - an international peace conference, involving all the actors whose acquiescence is needed to achieve the goal of peace. In short, Blair should be thinking not of a step-by-step approach, but in terms of a new congress of Berlin.
 
The mechanics of bringing such a conference into existence need not concern us. I personally would like it to be held under the auspices of the UN, on the basis of an invitation to the five permanent members of the security council and all the states and power-brokers in or adjoining the Middle East. It might be held in Cairo. Its results would be a legally binding peace treaty, an essential building block of the new international order.
 
The Americans and British will have to swallow one bitter pill straight away. Blair conceded that they needed the help of Iran and Syria, but implied preconditions. Iran must give up its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism in Iraq, Palestine, and the Lebanon, and so on. All this is completely unrealistic. The invitations must be without preconditions. The renunciations which the Americans and British seek should be part of the "grand bargain" struck, not a precondition for negotiations. Exactly the same logic applies to Hamas. Recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence will be required as part of the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
 
The outlines of a grand bargain, which might be acceptable to all concerned, and which would be underwritten by the international community, are not that difficult to see. The key elements would be as follows:
 
1 The establishment of a federal Iraq, with an agreed formula for sharing out oil revenues. Federation is a Western idea, but in this case it is simply a development of the way the originally separate Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were governed before the centralised military-cum-Ba'athist dictatorship of Saddam was established in the 1960s. The purpose of an international conference is not to impose a federal solution, but to facilitate efforts of the Iraqis themselves to find it, by providing a helpful external setting.
 
2 The Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be ended by establishing a fully independent Palestinian state within roughly the 1967 borders, together with a guarantee of Israel's frontiers and an internationally patrolled demilitarized zone along its borders with Palestine and the Lebanon for 15 years. This would be coupled with the renunciation by all signatories of territorial claims against each other.
 
3 A withdrawal of all western forces from the Middle East over a five-year period, in return for a guarantee by all oil producing states of uninterrupted supply of oil. It is evident that in Iraq the presence of American and British troops is the major cause of the insurgency which they lack the power or will to quell. More generally, the western military presence in the Middle East inflames terrorism and makes its fires unquenchable.
 
4 Negotiation of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. This would require the nuclear disarmament of Israel In return for Iran giving up its nuclear weapons programmes. Both 'disarmaments',which would proceed in parallel, would be supervised by the International Atomic Agency, with powers of intrusive inspection, and backed by sanctions. In the absence of such bargain, it is difficult to argue that Iran should be debarred from developing nuclear weapons of its own. The explicit premise of the non-nuclear proliferation treaty of 1968 was that in return for pledges by the non-nuclear powers not to develop nuclear weapons, the existing nuclear powers would dismantle theirs. The Middle East is a good place to start applying this principle. Otherwise nuclear proliferation cannot be prevented.
 
5 Economic pacification. This would start by activating the suspended customs union between Israel and Palestine and extending it to Jordan and the Lebanon, thus inaugurating a Middle Eastern 'common market'. But this move, together with the provision of reconstruction funds, would have to be part of the grand political bargain, not something designed to make it possible. Economics always follows politics: it does not lead it by the nose.
 
To many, these ideas will seem like rank appeasement. I prefer to call it realism. It is realistic, because it seeks to take advantage of a moment in time when the "great powers", especially the United States, retain considerable leverage in the Middle East, but not the ability to impose their will on it. This is what makes a genuine negotiation and multilateral ownership of a settlement possible. Five years down the road the balance will almost certainly have shifted further against the west - with the direst consequences.
 
Blair will have his work cut out to get such a conference off the ground in the next six months. But even if he only helps lay the groundwork for it he will deserve better of posterity than now seems likely.