British PM Tony Blair Shares His Hopes for Mideast Peace

British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined President Bush at a joint White House news conference today to offer his support for a renewed attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Blair later sat for an exclusive interview with ABC News' Ted Koppel and shared his views on the legacy of Yasser Arafat, the potential for Mideast peace, and his own political future. The following is an excerpt of that interview:

Watch Nightline tonight at 11:35 p.m. for more of the interview.

TED KOPPEL: Just talk about Yasser Arafat for a minute, as one reflects back on his career, beginning as a terrorist, ending up as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, a man who is regarded, at least in some circles, as a great statesman. How does Tony Blair regard him?

PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: I think former President Clinton put it rather well, actually, when he said, "Whatever people think of him, he was regarded by the Palestinians as the father of their people." And, I mean, I found his relationship that was difficult for all the reasons that we can go over because in the end I didn't feel that he was able to deliver the peace that the Palestinian people needed. But I think it would be churlish and wrong on this day of all days not to recognize that for the Palestinian people he was a major icon and a figure that they respected and admired.

I personally think what is important now is to make sure that we, as it were, recognize that in his passing there is also an opportunity to get a new start in the Middle East.

KOPPEL: Mr. Prime Minister, it was reported by some of my British colleagues before you left that you have really been rather impatient to get the Middle East peace process rolling again.

BLAIR: Well, I think we did make progress, and I do regard it as urgent, because I think that one of the things these terrorists are able to prey upon -- I don't believe they care much about the Palestinian cause genuinely, but they are able to use that as a source of recruitment for terrorists. When I was addressing your Congress, I called it a -- sort of, poisoned the atmosphere in international relations. And I think there is an urgency in getting at least started.

I think the president went as far as it was reasonable for him to go [during the press conference] today, because what he said was: I'm committed to doing this, to seeing a viable Palestinian state. I'm committed to doing it in my second term as president, but it has to be a state on certain terms with a proper democratic structure, with proper security for Israel, with an end to terrorism, and a system of political government that yields a stable partner.

KOPPEL: What optimism do you have that whoever takes over the leadership of the Palestinian people now, that they can keep those people under control?

BLAIR: Well, I think you're absolutely right in identifying this as the challenge, and that's why in the five steps we set out today, step three of that was drawing together a plan that we would organize with the international community to make sure that there was the agreement on the political, the economic and the security structure necessary for a viable Palestinian State.

Because what the president's saying -- and this is also my belief -- is that you're not going to get a two-state solution, a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state, unless that is on the basis that both of those states are democracies. And I think it is reasonable for us to say to the Palestinians, "We will help you do this. We're not just going to leave you on your own. We'll put the whole muscle and might of the international community behind achieving this." But let's be clear, we're not going to achieve a powerful Palestinian state that is an insecure neighbor for Israel. That wouldn't be right.

If, however, you want to say it's the Palestinian people that elect the government, there's got to be the rule of law, not the rule of terror in determining decisions. There's got to be proper economic development, not corruption. If that's where you want to go, because this is what we believe in, we'll help you get there.

KOPPEL: What does that help mean? There's been the perception, Prime Minister Blair, that America is too pro-Israeli and Europe is too pro-Arab. A fair assessment, do you think?

BLAIR: A fair assessment of the perception, yes. I mean, I think the reality is actually a lot different from that, and that's why I think we got somewhere today. I can assure you the Europeans, all of them, or nearly all of them, would accept entirely the idea that a Palestinian state has to be a democracy and the rule of law, not the rule of terror. Likewise, I think that Americans, all Americans, including those who are passionate about the state of Israel, would accept that it is fair and right if the Palestinians have their state, that that gives us the chance to make progress in the Middle East. But I think everyone can come together around that two-state solution, provided it's a democratic two-state solution.

KOPPEL: You were said to be anxious to have the president come to visit Europe, and he announced at his press conference this morning that he was going to do so after the inauguration. Are those visible irritations between the Bush administration and, for example, French President Chirac and German Chancellor Schroeder -- are those bridgeable and are you the man to do that? Or are they ready to have it happen anyway?

BLAIR: I think that the presidential elections happened, so that's the reality everyone deals with, whatever they might have liked or not liked. But I think that there is also a respect for President Bush, and I think that if he goes to Europe and says, look, this is how we can build this alliance for the future, I think he'll get a response from Europeans. And it's important to realize that, I think, sometimes just as it is possible in Europe to get a quite ridiculous, in my view, ridiculous view of American policy in Europe, it is occasionally the case that over in America you get a somewhat distorted view of European attitudes as well.

Most Europeans go a little bit beneath the surface. Most Europeans understand that the American alliance is of vital importance to us. And the truth is, whatever the differences between America and Europe, trade differences here, even over something as major as the war in Iraq, in the end we know we stand together. We share the same values. We share the same history and culture. And in the end, we will stand together.

KOPPEL: Senator Kerry suggested during his [presidential] campaign that if he were elected, he would be able to bring the Europeans into Iraq, even perhaps the Germans and the French. Clearly, he has not been elected, but do you think President Bush can?

BLAIR: I don't think that there was ever any question -- indeed, the French and Germans made this very clear -- of them bringing troops into Iraq. They won't do that. But I think they will be prepared to help. They should be, too, because after all this is now a United Nations process. And I think they will be willing to help in the reconstruction of the country. Indeed, the French are already having talks with Americans and with others about Iraqi debt and so on and how that can be dealt with.

KOPPEL: Mr. Prime Minister, I was thinking how difficult it must be for you as a human being, when, for example, you see the face of Margaret Hassan, the British-Iraqi woman who was the head of CARE in Baghdad, pleading for her life, asking you for help, when Mr. Bigley did the same thing a few weeks ago before he was murdered. And I know as prime minister you do what you have to do, but as a human being, how do you deal with that?

BLAIR: You have to try and make sure that you do deal with it, hopefully, as a prime minister and as a political leader. I mean, any human being would find these things incredibly distressing.

And also, you know, particularly with the Bigley case, I mean there was a lot of manipulation of the way that that was done I think in a really disgraceful way. And sure, of course, you feel all that as a human being, and you would be inhuman if you didn't, but you have to take the decisions about what to do as a political leader.

KOPPEL: And how do you do that?

BLAIR: By understanding, I think, that this is what the terrorists want to do is to put pressure on political leaders, but if you give into that pressure, then actually you put other people at risk because they then know that this works.

KOPPEL: I mean, clearly, some of your colleagues have. The Filipinos have. The Spanish have. It appears there are others who -- I mean, the Poles are going to be withdrawing their troops also. It seems to work in some respects.

BLAIR: Well, it -- I mean, I don't want to go into those individual cases. Sometimes it can work, but it shouldn't. Sometimes I think they have a clearer strategy about the damage they want to do to us than we as an international community as a whole have as a strategy about how we deal with them.

KOPPEL: The talk is you're going to call elections next spring and run for prime minister for a third term. There's going to be a lot of pressure on you, I suspect, at that time from a number of those different sources to get British troops out of Iraq. Are you able to say at this point, no matter what, even if it costs you your prime ministership, you won't do that?

BLAIR: Well, I've made it clear all the way through that I'm not going to give up on this or back down on it. And in the end you've got to faith in your own people and their judgment. And you know, the British people are, are strong people. They don't give into threats. And, yes, of course these people can try and cause embarrassment and difficulty, and they can cause misery and bloodshed as they've done.

But, I think the British people will remain true to what they believe in, and that's the faith I have in them, and there's no point in me trying to, you know, try to adopt a different position. I couldn't do it. I prefer not to do the job than to do that.

KOPPEL: So I mean can you give me the answer to my question then, is even if it costs you your prime ministership?

BLAIR: Well, I don't intend that it should do so, but the simple answer to your question is, I'm not changing from a position I believe in. There's no point in having a position of leadership in politics ultimately on an issue like this.

Look, there are lots of issues in politics where you make political trades here and there, and there's a business of politics that you engage in, and we all do. It's part of the job, and sometimes very necessary to do it, compromises here and deals there, and all the rest of it.

When you're dealing with something as fundamental as this -- and I think this is fundamental; I think it is the security threat of the early 21st century -- you shouldn't be in the job if you're going to compromise or do deals over that. That is fundamental, and I think it is very, very clear what we have to do. It's very clear what I have to do as the British prime minister, and I will do it. And in the end it's the judgment of the British people as to whether they agree with that or disagree with it. And that's democracy.

KOPPEL: Will you and I live to see the end of worldwide terrorism? I mean, isolated terrorism I understand. We've always had that, we always will. But the sort of global movement that seems to be gaining power right now?

BLAIR: Yes, I think we will, because I think that we have started, even as difficult and divisive as we were saying earlier, we started to take the measures necessary to end it. The most important thing -- this is based on a perversion of the true faith of Islam. That's what it is. And if we show by our actions that our desire is not actually to suppress the religion of Islam but, on the contrary, to bring about tolerance for people of all faiths, and if we show that we're committed to democracy and freedom rather than terrorism and suppression of human rights, then I think that this terrorism will be defeated because it is grown in a culture that relies actually not just on a perversion of their religion, but also on a parody and a perversion of what we stand for in the West.