Blair admits to cabinet splits over his support for Bush on Israel

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The Independent Online

Battered by criticism, Tony Blair last night prepared for a holiday, leaving behind a cabinet torn by dissent, a party in turmoil, and a country dismayed by his handling of the Middle East crisis.

The Prime Minister robustly defended his decision to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with President George Bush in refusing to call for a ceasefire while Lebanon burns. His defence came amid claims in the New Statesman that there was a conspiracy between the US, Israel and Britain to launch a war on Lebanon.

Speaking at his monthly press conference, he said that events in Lebanon had to be seen as part of a wider picture and that a stand had to be made against the "arc of extremism" that links Palestine, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Five years ago, days after the 11 September attacks, Mr Blair told a Labour party conference: "This is a moment to seize. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world..."

Since then, Mr Blair has joined Mr Bush in waging a world-wide "war against terror" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home in British cities. The two leaders are now accused of standing by as Israel attempts to eliminate Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, at the cost of at least 900 civilian lives.

Yesterday Mr Blair called for an "alliance of moderation to take on those people with such extreme views..." But apparent one-sided support for America and the Israelis has lost allies in the Middle East and support at home.

Resurgent Taliban fighters this week killed three more British soldiers in Helmand province. Suicide bombings kill dozens daily in Iraq, and yesterday it emerged that the respected outgoing British ambassador William Patey, in a leaked memorandum to Mr Blair, had told the Prime Minister that Iraq was facing "a descent into civil war and anarchy". Israel's apparent disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians, and Mr Blair's refusal to call for a halt to the fighting, has further diminished his standing in the Arab world.

Mr Blair is leaving Britain resigned to the fact that he appears isolated within his cabinet. Yesterday, Mr Blair admitted some cabinet ministers had shown "anxiety" about his refusal to press President Bush to condemn the Israeli bombing. They include Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary - but he denied being at odds with Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary.

He said: "I don't doubt that there are cabinet ministers who have doubts about aspects of the policy. But reports about Margaret [Beckett] and myself, and that my officials have been telling me to do different things, it's not the case."

Ministers are also uneasy that Britain and the US appeared to be allowing the Israelis time to redraw the map of the Middle East by bombing Hizbollah in a proxy war against Iran. Some fear it gives the extremists the opportunity to claim that the West is waging a holy war.

Mr Blair dismissed such fears, saying: "How can there possibly be a religious war when actually what we want is for Jews and Muslims and Christians to live in peace with each other as they do here in our country?

"Our vision of the future is a vision in which diversity of faith and culture and race is a strength not a weakness. The only ones engaged in a war voluntarily are those who committed the atrocities of 7 July, 11 September and 3 November in Madrid."

A UN resolution calling for a ceasefire could be published within the next 24 hours and Mr Blair signalled that Israel might be ready to accept one agreed by the UN security council.

It will be linked to the deployment of a multilateral force, but details over its composition, terms of engagement, and precise role will be the subject of tough negotiations over the weekend. The Prime Minister said the remaining differences to a resolution were "very slight".

Richard Burden, the Labour chairman of the all-party Parliamentary Britain-Palestine group, said: "I think his argument that Hamas, al-Qa'ida and Hizbollah can be lumped together is wrong."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, accused Mr Blair of a "gross oversimplification", adding: "Mr Blair's determination not to be parted from Mr Bush has deeply damaged Britain's influence."

Mr Blair said that he would continuetalks while on holiday to secure agreement for a UN resolution that could end the bloodshed "within days".

'No one sees policy as credible'

"While I condemn the hostage taking of Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks on Israel, I believe the response was disproportionate and appalling.

As a Labour MP, I say with sadness and a heavy heart that the Prime Minister's press conference did not inspire me at all. He needs to take a much more even-handed approach.

He refused to endorse Jack Straw's comments that the Israeli response was disproportionate. He refused to condemn Israel, even over the massacre at Qana.

How can he say this Government's policy is independent when we have provided logistical support in a British airport for the transport of bombs that are being used against innocent men, women and children in Lebanon?

Tony Blair talked about wanting to see the spread of democracy in the Middle East and yet at the same time he refuses to talk to Hamas, which was democratically elected, and he stands by while the democratic government of Lebanon is attacked.

He mentioned the creation of a viable Palestinian state and yet he didn't mention the need for the full implementation of UN resolutions 242 and 338, which call on Israel to withdraw its forces to the pre-1967 borders.

He didn't mention the apartheid wall that has caused misery and hardship for many Palestinians. He didn't mention the illegal settlements in the West Bank. There is immense anger among rank-and-file members of the Labour Party and backbench MPs.

He refused again to call for an immediate ceasefire - on both sides. The level of civilian casualties in Lebanon has helped build support for Hizbollah. Yet if George Bush and Mr Blair had called for an immediate ceasefire and Hizbollah had refused to comply, Hizbollah would have faced wide anger, including in the Muslim world.

I was against the Iraq war, I voted against it, but I still believed at the time that at least something good could come out of it and that our Prime Minister would work day and night to bring a peace to the Middle East. This peace now looks distant.

I believe that the Prime Minister's response is not representative of our country's feelings and this is why I have requested, with 15 other Labour MPs, a recalling of Parliament."

Mohammad Sarwar, Labour MP for Glasgow Central

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