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Tony Blair addresses the 5th Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem

Full text of the speech by Tony Blair, Quartet Representative to the Middle East

The 5th Israeli Presidential Conference, under the auspices of President Shimon Peres

International Convention Center, Jerusalem.

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The skillset that takes you to leadership is not necessarily the skillset that best serves you as a leader. The person running to be leader has to be the Great Persuader. The person who is leader has to be a great CEO. There is a big difference between the two.  The first is about the power of words; the second about the power of action. Leaders have to communicate; but the final judgment on their leadership is not about what they say, but what they do.

Leaders are decision makers and takers. Leadership is always about taking responsibility when others would shrink from it; about stepping out and not stepping back. It is about being prepared to take the criticism and the inevitable chorus of disapproval that is leadership’s noisy accompaniment. 

But here, right now, in this region and around the world, leadership has become especially tough. Today we live in an era of what you might call uniquely low predictability, and in a context in which all the choices are ugly. In economic decision making, across the developed world, the debate rages between those advocating austerity and those going for growth. Massive quantitative easing has taken place in the USA; EU; and the UK. A huge experiment is underway in Japanese monetary policy. Recently I read two papers, both brilliantly written: one by a distinguished UK financial leader, which argued that the monetary boost was right and was the world’s salvation; the other by an equally distinguished OECD economist, who argued it is a disaster and the world’s financial Armageddon. Which is right? As a leader you’re expected to know. Except you can’t know. The cosy economic consensus of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries departed with the crisis. In its place is confusion. But the leader has to decide. 

In this region, the ugly choices abound: to intervene in Syria or not; to compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood or not; did the West make a mistake in supporting the Arab upheavals or was such support inevitable? How do we stop the nuclear ambitions of Iran? Everywhere you look there is uncertainty, unpredictability and instability. 

And the problem is: the best short-term politics will often pull in the opposite direction from the best long-term policy. So much of the sentiment in the Western political economy is anti-business and particularly anti- the banks. But the best long-term policy is almost certainly to encourage business and have the financial sector back on its feet and thriving. Undoubtedly the predominant emotion in the West today is to stay out of Syria; indeed to stay out of the region’s politics. But as every day that passes shows, the cost of staying out may be paid in a higher price later.

So this is a tough time to be a leader. And one thing I’ve learned for sure since leaving office is: it’s a lot easier to give the advice than take the decision! So what I now say, I say with humility born of experience.

In unpredictable times calculation of risk and interest is hard; so, as a leader do what you believe to be right, even if unpopular. Stick with what you believe. Lead from a point of principle. Because the conventional wisdom of today may be the disposable folly of tomorrow.

What does that mean here in the Middle East?

First, we should stand up for true Democracy. Democracy is not just a way of voting but a way of thinking. It isn’t simply about how the majority takes power, but about how the majority then treats the minority. It is pluralistic in nature. It means treating all people equally, irrespective of race or faith. It means treating men and women equally. It means the rule of law in which citizens know judges are impartial and free from political pressure. It means religion in its proper place with a voice but not a veto. So whether it is in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia or in what comes next in Syria when the nightmare ends, there should be a constitutional settlement in which the rights of all are equal and guaranteed. 

Second, we have to recognize there will not be democratic progress without economic progress. In Europe we have an aging population. In the Middle East there is a population whose median age is often in the early 20’s. Each year there are more and more young people who will need a job. It is clear what works in the modern economy: open markets; predictable rules for doing business; and an educated work force. Yet some of the new Governments in the region are at risk of moving in the opposite direction, driven by short term populism to increase the public sector, harass the private sector and fail to deliver basic services and infrastructure. This is hugely dangerous.

Democracy is a way of deciding who are the decision makers; it can’t substitute for the decisions. These economic decisions are vital, urgent and have to be right. 

So thirdly, leaders should think creatively about how to build the capacity in Government effectively to deliver change. This is the CEO part of leadership. In the work I do today, with my Governance Initiative, I see many countries where honesty and transparency are big challenges. But the biggest is efficacy. It’s getting things done. 

The good news is that the lesson of what works in government is clear. The hard part is applying it. The best modern government works through empowerment and partnership not command and control. The best public service delivery systems have diverse providers, consumer power and strong public/private partnerships at their core. Particularly in the fields of education and healthcare, technology alone – its revolutionary potential and its transformative impact- would change dramatically how any Western nation would teach and heal today if they were starting from scratch. Countries in this region should be thinking how they apply these lessons. 

Fourth, progress cannot come without stability or stability without security. We have to be prepared to be strong in defence of our values. It is why Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and export of terrorism round the region are a threat. We must be determined to confront and overcome that threat. Those that truly hold the power in Tehran must know of our determination and feel its vigour.   Of course any choice involving military action is fraught. No one wants it. But a nuclear armed Iran is the worst choice and we shouldn’t make it.  

Finally leaders have to be visionaries. Shimon Peres in one of his inimitable quotes once put it to me brilliantly: “A leader in office has to decide: does he want to be in the history book or the guest book?” Right now in this region, we need such leadership for peace for the history book between Israelis and Palestinians. Resolution of this conflict is essential: for the security of Israel; to the dignity of Palestinians. Some people say a two-state solution is now a fantasy. I say the fantasy is in thinking a one-state solution would ever be remotely sustainable or consistent with the values Israel represents. Let us hope that over the coming weeks, a plan for progress can be put in place in which politics, economics and security are aligned.  With Secretary John Kerry’s fantastic energy and commitment, we’re all working hard to accomplish this. But we should understand: the window of opportunity will be open for only a short space of time. We must go through it together. If not the window will close again and could even close forever. Time is not our friend. This is urgent. This is now. And it is a time for statesmen not politicians. 

Peace will not depend simply on negotiations. Peace is a state of mind as well as states with borders. 

There is a shift in the psyche of each side that also has to happen. Israel must see a viable sovereign Palestinian State not as a reward to the Palestinians for good behaviour; but as a strategic necessity for Israel’s future security and as a right for the Palestinian People. The Palestinians must see that for Israel to feel confident enough to make peace, they need to know that such a Palestinian State will be properly governed with a Palestinian politics, unified in pursuit of an agreement that recognises clearly Israel’s right to exist and ends the conflict once and for all.

Peace here is most important for Israelis and Palestinians. But it is important for all of us. Why? Because peace would symbolise reconciliation and respect between not only two nations but two peoples. The great political divide of our time is less between traditional left and right and more between the open minded and the closed minded. The open minded see a world in which different faiths, races and cultures mix and mingle, as an opportunity; the closed mind sees it as a menace. Yet globalization, an unstoppable force driven by technology and people not Governments and laws, pushes us together. We live interconnected and interdependent. Such a world only works through respect for difference. You may have your faith and I mine but my faith does not make me superior to you or you to me. Those who use religion as a badge of identity in opposition to those of a different faith put our world at risk. My Faith Foundation is about to launch a programme that links up schools of different faiths across the world so that children can learn from an early age how to live with each other and from each other. 

Education the world over for an open mind could be the single best investment in our future security we could make. 

The State of Israel was created partly in reaction to the horrors of prejudice but it was also imbued from the beginning with the spirit of great thinkers who had minds open to the future, eager to discover its possibilities. And so we have this remarkable country of Israel today. Shimon Peres was one of those thinkers. He’s still thinking. Of the future. Of tomorrow. He may be 90. But he has the spirit of a 30 year old. And that is the spirit we need today. Thank you.