'Pro-Israel' Blair not welcome in Beirut, Shia cleric warns

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The Independent Online

Lebanon’s most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, has told Tony Blair he is not welcome in Beirut, saying that the government should have declared the British prime minister “persona non grata” because of his perceived support for Israel.

Fadlallah, whose home was demolished during Israel’s 34-day onslaught on Lebanon launched after Shia militia captured two Israeli soldiers, said Blair was "a real partner in the Israeli-American war on Lebanon." "He (Blair) participated in one way or another in the American-Israeli madness spree against Lebanon and acted like a killer of children, women and the elderly and worked to prevent a cease-fire from being reached," the religious leader said in a statement.

Mr Blair announced yesterday that the Middle East peace process means so much to him that he will pay at least one more visit to the region before he leaves Downing Street. His remarks were made in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, soon after he had presented himself as a broker in getting Israel's Prime Minister and the Palestinian President to talk face to face.

Mr Blair also came to Palestine armed with a formula which he hoped will circumvent the problem that western governments refuse to deal with Palestine's elected administration unless the election winners, Hamas, do not recognise the state of Israel, renounce violence or recognise existing agreements. But Hamas were quick to reject the idea of a national unity government forced on them by outsiders.

"I hope I'm able to return to this region again," Mr Blair told journalists after his meeting with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. He added: "As far as I'm concerned this is issue which I believe passionately in will be as important as any other priority for me in the time that remains for me in office."

Staff travelling with Mr Blair have vehemently denied any suggestion that he has gone to the Middle East to escape the conflict in the Labour Party.

When asked whether he believed Gordon Brown's denial of involvement in any "coup" against him back home, Mr Blair replied "of course", but refused to say more, pleading that he wanted to concentrate on Palestine while he was in the region.

The previous day, he had met the Israeli head of government, Ehud Olmert, who announced afterwards that he was prepared to meet Mr Abbas unconditionally. Mr Abbas reciprocated yesterday with an unconditional promise to meet Mr Olmert. He also praised Mr Blair's role as a mediator. Mr Abbas also confirmed that he was going to Gaza to talk to Hamas about forming a government of national unity. Mr Blair has promised him that provided the Palestinian government as a whole recognises Israel and renounces violence, Britain and other nations will deal directly with it, even if it includes members of Hamas.

"We're not overstating it, but it is a significant step. The momentum is going in the right way, not the wrong way," his spokesman said. But others questioned the value of arranging a meeting between a Palestinian President who is virtually powerless, and an Israeli Prime Minister whose political survival is seriously in doubt because of Israel's failure to achieve its military objectives in Lebanon. Mr Abbas is reported to have intended to resign in frustration from his job last week but was dissuaded from doing so by King Abdullah of Jordan.

Mr Blair's staff were also prepared for Arab protests about his visit, after hundreds of Palestinians had said he should not be there because he is too pro-Israeli. But the Palestinian reaction to Mr Blair was largely one of weary indifference. The only protest staged close to Mr Blair was by a British woman living in the West Bank, who gave her name as Kirsty. She stood up at his press conference wearing a handmade t-shirt bearing the slogan: "Tony Blair you make me ashamed to be British".

Yesterday Mr Blair met the families of Israeli soldiers kidnapped in the Lebanon and Gaza, but had no equivalent meetings with any Arab families.

Palestinians watching Mr Blair's performances at two press conferences were dismissive about their significance. "It is always the same: words, words, words and do nothing," said a Palestinian householder living between Ramallah and Jerusalem. "I watched Blair and we didn't find anything new. In future the West Bank will more like a prison."

The Palestinian West Bank is being chopped up by Israeli checkpoints and barriers. A high wall seals off Jerusalem from the West Bank. There are 550 permanent roadblocks and 125 makeshift roadblocks. The 'two state solution' as advocated by Mr Blair can no longer be implemented. Even with the right passes, entering Jerusalem from the West Bank is a laborious process of queuing with the possibility in the Palestinian case that they may well be turned away. Every Palestinian has stories of men who were not allowed to enter Jerusalem to take their wife to hospital. "Above all there is a sense of hopelessness," said Mustafa, a Palestinian shopkeeper.