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Donald Macintyre's week

Kicking the story into Toryland

One of the curses of having written a book about Peter Mandelson is being left with an over-detailed recall of his colourful career. I checked my memory when it emerged that Tony Blair had been prompted by a meeting with Bernie Ecclestone to tell ministers to row back on their efforts to ban tobacco advertising in Formula One. Sure enough, I wrote that Mandelson had directed his adviser and briefer Benjamin Wegg-Prosser - who's popped up again with a cameo role in the Oleg Deripaska affair - to ease the story into "Toryland". To point out, in other words, that Ecclestone, who had already given a £1m donation to the Labour Party and was contemplating another, had been a Conservative donor previously. So if shadow ministers leaked information about the then EU trade commissioner's relationship with Deripaska, precedent suggested that it could well boomerang. The tactic, if such it was, of dispatching the story to "Toryland", had much more traction in 2008 than it had a decade earlier. The problem has been keeping it there.

Israeli elections -we are about to get another-are a good way to see the country's diversity. My most surprising visit of the last one, in 2006, was to a thermal massage bed showroom in Jerusalem frequented by post-1989 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, strong supporters of Avigdor Lieberman, the secular and very right wing Moldovan-born West Bank settler who leads Yisrael Beitenu and has called in the past for the execution of Israeli Arabs who meet Hamas leaders. (One of the many reasons for preferring Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to her Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu is that she is less likely to bring Lieberman into her government.)

The views in the queue on the Palestinians were uncompromising. "When I came here I saw that there was a war and I know very well that, if your enemy attacks you, he should be destroyed," Eduard Zubkov, 67, who grew up in Kharkov during the Second World War, told me, before adding: "Can you imagine if Stalin was in charge? He was a very tough ruler."

My bet is that Tony Blair will stick to his mission, albeit part-time, as Middle East envoy if he has the chance. Indeed, if a President Obama were to expand his remit to a more political mediating role, Blair would probably jump at it. But in the meantime nothing would bolster his street cred more than to make his first visit to Gaza. I was at the school in Beit Lahiya as pupils practised for a display of football skills in his honour in July; he was a no-show thanks to personal phone calls by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, made to him as he drove down, warning him off because of a "specific" security threat. The frustration among Gaza civil society leaders and UN officials at what would have been the highest profile diplomatic visit since Hamas's takeover the previous year was palpable.

If he makes it, Blair should pay a call on Sami Abdel-Shafi, whom I met in Gaza City last week. Sami, who has extensive Silicon Valley experience, is a passionate champion of Gaza's private sector, and ran a successful business consultancy here when there was any business to consult. He is exactly the sort of person who would be key to a future Palestinian state. Yet how much of a future does he have here with the economy in a state of total collapse? Earlier this year Blair himself repeatedly said that it was hard to persuade Israel to open commercial crossings while the Qassams were still raining down. Yet after four months of ceasefire, productive industry is still shut down. Deep poverty is more acute than ever, with 80 per cent in this once proudly entrepreneurial territory now dependent on food aid. If he makes it, Blair would surely find it hard to escape the conclusion that the measures Israel and the international community have designed to weaken Hamas are actually much more effective in hurting the population than its de facto government. The Hamas payroll, military as well as civilian, is the only sector - apart from smuggling through the tunnels from Egypt - of employment growth.

It probably wasn't smart to try and bring through the Erez crossing a couple of bottles of spirits as a gift -unsolicited - for some friends last week. At the passport checkpoint Hamas has set up just far enough from the border to be out of shooting range of Israeli forces, a uniformed policeman went through my bags for the first time in scores of trips to Gaza. I was told I could not bring it into the Strip, where the last remaining drinking establishment, the UN Beach Club, was blown up by unknown assailants just under two years ago. A suggestion that I might be able to pick it up when I left seemed far-fetched to me, but on my way out two days later a Hamas police inspector duly produced the goods from a lock-up. This time, he told me, showing the same combination of politeness and firmness as his colleague, I could take it back to Jerusalem. But not next time.

Donald Macintyre is Jerusalem correspondent of the Independent

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas