Blair calls for fresh approach to Middle East initiative

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair made a strong public appeal to President Bush last night to use his second term to revitalise the Middle East peace process.

Tony Blair made a strong public appeal to President Bush last night to use his second term to revitalise the Middle East peace process.

Speaking in Downing Street, the Prime Minister sought to capitalise on his strong personal relationship with the re-elected US President by urging him to tackle the causes of global terrorism, warning bluntly that it would "not be defeated by military might alone".

Mr Blair declared: "The need to revitalise the Middle East peace process is the single most pressing political challenge in our world today." He added: "Therefore we must be relentless in our war against terrorism and in resolving the conditions and causes on which the terrorists prey."

The Prime Minister, who has been frustrated by Mr Bush's reluctance to tackle the Israel-Palestine question, sought to reassure his domestic critics by demanding that it be given greater priority by the new Bush administration. Pointedly, however, President Bush did not mention the Middle East in his victory speech last night.

Mr Blair appealed to the US and European leaders to "build anew" their alliance following the bitter divisions caused by Iraq. "A world that is fractured, divided and uncertain must be brought together," he said.

He was speaking after congratulating Mr Bush in a telephone conversation and telling the defeated John Kerry he had fought "an outstanding campaign". Blair aides insisted the result provided an "opportunity" for the Prime Minister to use his position as the President's closest overseas ally to secure a new push on the Middle East. He is expected to visit Washington shortly.

But Labour MPs expressed fears that Mr Blair would receive no "payback" and warned that President Bush might be more willing to act unilaterally against countries such as Iran after winning a new mandate.

Mr Bush's victory, although providing stability and continuity for Mr Blair, will make it harder for him to draw a line under Iraq. Privately, he would have preferred a Kerry victory, which could have provided a fresh start on the international agenda and helped him to end the damaging rift with his party - and many voters - over Iraq.

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, said: "He [Mr Blair] is denied the chance of having a new partner with whom he would work and a new agenda for international relations that does not come with the baggage of Iraq." He urged the Prime Minister to say "no" if hawks in the Bush administration persuaded the President to attack another country and he asked for Britain's support.

Some Blair advisers admitted that Mr Bush's victory would ensure that Iraq enjoyed a higher profile in the run-up to the general election expected next May. They fear that a military attack on Fallujah, the Iraqi elections and a Senate inquiry into the failure to find weapons of mass destruction will add to Mr Blair's woes over Iraq.

The damage that his closeness to President Bush can cause Mr Blair in Britain is symbolised by his failure to collect the US congressional gold medal he was awarded after the Iraq war.

But Downing Street insiders said Mr Blair "couldn't win" over the election. "If Bush had lost, the British media would have seen it as a defeat caused by Iraq and said the PM was heading for the same fate," one said.

Labour MPs were dismayed by the election result. Brian Sedgemore, an anti-war Labour MP said: "It is good for Blair but a disaster for Britain. Four more years of Bush is too gut-wrenching to contemplate."

Some Labour MPs suspected Mr Blair was relieved there was no decisive anti-war vote. "We are all down in the dumps about the result," said one. "But I don't think Blair is."