PM urged: Stand up to Bush and call for ceasefire

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Tony Blair will face fresh pressure over the Middle East crisis today when he arrives in Washington to meet President George Bush. Senior Downing Street aides said the two leaders intended to show the world they were seeking an urgent end to the hostilities in Lebanon, despite the failure of the much vaunted Rome summit on Wednesday to deliver a unified call for a truce.

Israel's Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, added to the pressure yesterday, when he interpreted that indecision as a green light to continue the bloody assault on Lebanon.

"We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world... to continue the operation," he told reporters.

The Prime Minister's visit takes place as 42 leading figures in politics, diplomacy, academia and the media put their names to a declaration urging Mr Blair to tell the President that Britain "can no longer support the American position on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle-East". Their declaration, printed on the front page of today's Independent, calls on the Prime Minister to "make urgent representations to Israel to end its disproportionate and counter-productive response to Hizbollah's aggression".

After his stop-over in Washington, Mr Blair will fly on to California tonight to attend a conference with the media magnate Rupert Murdoch. An ally of Mr Murdoch, Irwin Stelzer, insisted Mr Blair was not Mr Bush's "poodle", but his "guide dog", particularly over the Middle East.

Downing Street officials said Mr Blair intended to respond to world criticism by showing urgency in seeking an end to the hostilities between Israel and Hizbollah. The Prime Minister and the President are planning to commit their governments to a lasting ceasefire by restoring the authority of the elected government against the unilateral action by Hizbollah.

Their joint appearance at the White House is likely to be met with scepticism. The Bush administration said this week it was seeking a "new Middle East", raising fears that the crisis in Lebanon was a proxy war between the US and Iran, Hizbollah's backers.

Senior officials in Downing Street said the Prime Minister supported the US strategy on the Middle East, which was agreed at the Sea Island G8 summit in 2004. Mr Blair is credited with persuading the President to pursue a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. Mr Blair and Mr Bush will emphasise they are working behind the scenes to push for an urgent end to the violence on both sides in the Lebanon.

"Don't in any way underestimate the intensive nature of the diplomacy," said one senior aide to the Prime Minister. "There is a lot going on behind the scenes. We want to show that we are stepping up the search for a process that allows both sides to end the hostilities and there is urgency about that."

Mr Blair's influence on the US President, as part of the "special relationship" with America, was ridiculed after Mr Bush was heard saying "Yo, Blair" to him at the G8 summit in St Petersburg. In the recorded conversation, Mr Bush refused to allow Mr Blair to mount a diplomatic mission to the Middle East, preferring instead to send his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

Both leaders know that their time in office is running out, and officials said they saw eye to eye on four out of five of the key items on the agenda at today's meeting - the "war against terror", the need to spread democracy in the Middle East, restoring stability to Iraq, and the need to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran. They are far apart on the collapse of the world trade talks, which is also on the agenda, but other tricky issues such as the controversy over the use of British airports for US arms shipments to Israel will be put to one side. "That is matter for Mrs Beckett [the Foreign Secretary]," said one No 10 source.

Downing Street has insisted that Mr Blair has privately used influence on the Bush administration over the war in Lebanon, rather than calling publicly for a ceasefire that could not be enforced. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Blair decided to "roll his sleeves up" and work behind the scenes, rather than act as a commentator on the sidelines.

Sir Stephen Wall, one of the Prime Minister's most trusted former advisers, said Mr Blair's approach was wrong. "There have been times on trade issues when the PM should have told Bush to get his tanks off our lawn," Sir Stephen wrote in the New Statesman. "There are still times when, as well as working quietly with Congress on climate change, we should speak up about the irresponsibility of the White House.

"There are times, such as the past two weeks, when a British prime minister should have been thinking less about private influence and more about public advocacy."

Day 16

* 600 may have died in Lebanon, says its Health Minister. Israeli planes attack trucks carrying medical and food supplies.

* Israel calls up 30,000 reservists, but cabinet decides not to expand its incursion into Lebanon.

* Hizbollah fires 48 rockets into northern Israel, wounding four people.

* Hamas rejects comment from Palestinian President that release of Israeli hostage is "imminent".

* Iran's President says Israel has pushed a self-destruct button.

* Security Council expresses shock and distress at Israel's bombing of a UN post but no condemnation.

* Al-Qa'ida's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calls on Muslims to repel attacks on their countries.

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