Tony Blair in Israel
Tony Blair in IsraelKempinski

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed optimism on Thursday for a more peaceful Middle East, given recent developments in the region.

Speaking at the “From Balfour to Brexit” Conference held at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, Blair said Arab leaders were beginning to rethink their decades-old opposition to the Jewish state.

“Changes in the region are creating new alliances and new opportunities,” Blair said. “There is an Arab leadership starting to formulate a view of their history which does not involve a demonization of Israel.”

“For any government in Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians is tough unless there are regional underpinnings. Many in the region can be partners to help solve the situation and not just point the finger.”

In addition to Blair, the conference also featured Lord Roderick Balfour, the 5th Earl of Balfour, and descendant of Lord Arthur Balfour, Leader of the Opposition MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and former Israeli Foreign Minister MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), among many other British and Israeli politicians, diplomats, journalists and other opinion-shapers.

Many of the speakers focused on the UK-Israel relationship, against the backdrop the 100 year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the upcoming exit of Britain from the European Union.

Opposition Leader Herzog, whose grandfather once served as Chief Rabbi of Ireland, talked about the possibility of emboldening the relationship. ‘There is a need to craft a new relationship where Israel becomes part of a moderate coalition to combat Iran and the Jihadists,” Herzog said. “We can and should also look for ways to enhance cooperation between two successful economies.”

Tzipi Livni spoke about how the European Union’s linkage between their relationship with Israel and the peace process is problematic. “However, in the UK we find a better understanding of our security needs,” Livni said. In referring to the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to have the British Government apologize for the Balfour Declaration, Livni said: “I tell the Palestinians to try and change the future and not the past.”

Lord Balfour spoke about the pride his family has for the declaration signed by his ancestor. “I’m happy to come to Israel because I realize that the Balfour Declaration means an awful lot to Jews in Israel and the Diaspora,” Balfour said. “I see it very much as a humanitarian gesture against the background of what was happening at the time.”

“As a reader of the Bible, it is axiomatic that there is a connection of the Jewish people to the Israel.”

During the conference, a new Sir Naim Dangoor Center for UK-Israel Relations was inaugurated at Mishkenot Sha’ananim by his son David Dangoor, businessman, philanthropist and former President of the Board of The S&P Sephardi Community, the oldest Jewish community in the UK spanning over 350 years, in the presence of Tony Blair.

David Dangoor discussed the importance of UK-Israel relations and the need for such a center. “Clearly we know Brexit is going to change things, and the message from Prime Minister Theresa May and the government is very much we need to strengthen our good relations, especially with those countries which have excellent business technology and science, and Israel is a top candidate in that,” Dangoor said. “So I felt that to put my father’s name there, and to bring Israel into an even more positive light in the UK and to help Britain strengthen its ties with Israel, were all great activities that we were delighted to be associated with.”

Moti Schwartz, Director General of Mishkenot Sha’ananim the international cultural institution and conference center located in Jerusalem which hosted the event, spoke about the center’s activities.

“The center’s activity will complement Mishkenot Sha’ananim’s nonpartisan space for thought, dialogue and pluralism,” Schwartz said. “Its many programs, cultural, creative, educational and social, will promote important aspects of UK-Israel relations and hosting British authors, scholars and artists.”

“We are hoping they will be inspired by this beautiful city and add to the intellectual and cultural landscape of Jerusalem and Israel.”