Straw breaks ranks on Middle East in revolt against Blair

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Indy Politics

The Cabinet revolt against Tony Blair intensified last night as Jack Straw broke ranks to condemn Israel for causing "death and misery to innocent civilians".

As the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, arrived in Israel for talks, her former British counterpart, Mr Straw, bitterly condemned Israeli military tactics, saying they risked destroying the Lebanese government.

The public attack is the most direct so far on the authority of the Prime Minister, who still refuses to join calls for an immediate ceasefire or rebuke Israel. Instead Mr Blair will today make the case for pre-emptive strikes against Islamist militants when he addresses Rupert Murdoch's senior executives in California.

Downing Street had hoped that pressure on Mr Blair would be relieved by his joint announcement of a peace plan in Washington on Friday with President Bush. But he was looking increasingly isolated last night as the depth of the anger among senior ministers at his failure to rebuke Israel became clear.

Mr Straw, now Leader of the House, said that he grieved for innocent Israelis but also the "10 times as many innocent Lebanese men, women and children who have been killed by Israeli fire", adding: "It's very difficult to understand the kind of military tactics used by Israel. These are not surgical strikes but have caused death and misery to many innocent civilians."

In a TV interview last night Mr Blair denied that there had been a row in Cabinet about his support for the US and Israel. "There was a perfectly good discussion at Cabinet and it wasn't a divisive discussion. What they were saying is, let's make sure with urgency we stop this situation which is killing innocent people." In another interview he also denied that he wanted Israel to win the current conflict, and defended his relationship with Mr Bush: "I'll never apologise for Britain being a strong ally of the US."

In the Middle East, meanwhile, there were conflicting signals from Hizbollah on prospects for an end to the 18-day conflict and the eventual disarmament of the guerrilla group. Ms Rice said it was a "positive step" that Hizbollah had backed a Lebanese government decision in favour of a ceasefire agreement.

She is seeking a deal under which a multinational force would be deployed in southern Lebanon, Hizbollah would be disarmed and the two soldiers it abducted two and a half weeks ago would be returned to Israel.

Hizbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, gave qualified support to the Lebanese initiative, but suggested tentative promises to disarm would be off if its conditions were not met. He said Israel had suffered a "serious defeat" around the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, where nine soldiers were killed on Wednesday, and where Israel withdrew some forces yesterday.

An Israeli air strike yesterday on the southern village of Nmeiriya killed a woman and six children, according to Lebanese medics. Officials there say 469 people have been killed since the conflict began.

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