Adrian Hamilton: Blair may be sincere, but this crisis reveals the poverty of his policy on the Middle East

He needs to bring the radical forces in Hizbollah and Hamas into the process, not demonise them
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The Independent Online

Nothing has so displayed the decline of the Prime Minister's position than the manner of his leaving to go on holiday. It's not Tony Blair's fault, of course, that the Lebanese crisis should have erupted just as he was planning an elder statesman's swan over to California. Politics rarely allows the luxury of big-picture musing, at least not until after retirement.

But from the beginning Blair has been caught on the hop. At the G8 in St Petersburg he was captured in a conversation that made apparent to all his inability to follow an independent position to President Bush's. In America he was left trying to answer the calls for an immediate ceasefire with an almost desperate elaboration of a vision of a war of civilisations intended to make everything else seem petty by comparison.

Then, back in Britain, he found himself in the classic dilemma of whether to proceed with his holiday or not. To go would be to look uncaring, to stay would look frantic. Inevitably he stayed, with the fanciful excuse that he didn't want to be caught out on a transatlantic plane just when he had important work to do in ringing world leaders and organising a UN resolution. A 12-hour delay to his trip quickly turned into one of five days.

And so he has now gone, without a UN resolution, without appearing to have made much difference to the talks about a "cessation of hostilities", without indeed the UK being mentioned at all in the busy round of diplomacy, led not by the US and Britain but America and France and now stymied by the intervention of the Arab League. Presidents Bush and Chirac went on their summer vacations and held the diplomatic ring by telephone. Blair stayed to man the telephones in Downing Street and didn't even get a mention.

That may be unfair to the Prime Minister, who is very good at this kind of leader-to-leader diplomacy, as he has shown over the EU rebate and the Olympic games. But it is also a reflection of the limits of British influence and the poverty of Blair's personal policy on the Middle East.

Of the Prime Minister's sincerity and his passion to help bring about a solution to the Middle East problem, no one should be in any doubt. From his first years with Bill Clinton at the time of the Camp David meeting and the Taba offers, Blair has wanted to see a settlement of the Palestine issue. At the same time, however, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq has sucked him into an increasingly mannichean view of the war on terror. As hard as Blair tries - and he was at it again this week, same as the last - he cannot square the circle of a passionate desire for peace in Palestine while also following a line of equally passionate confrontation with the forces of radical Islam in the region.

This is partly because President Bush has consistently whipped the rug from beneath the Prime Minister's feet. The harder Blair has pushed - as he has - for a more even-handed approach to the Middle East, the more openly Bush has come out in support of the Israeli position.

Just as Blair was congratulating himself on helping persuade the US President to support a two-state solution, Bush, without consulting Blair, met the Israeli Prime Minister and threw America's whole weight behind his plan to redraw Israel's borders to include the major West Bank settlements and the flat rejection of any right of return for the Palestinian refuges.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's present Prime Minister, has declared that no American President has been as wholly supportive of Israel as this one, an accolade which deprives America, and with it Britain, of any role as a disinterested third party.

But the other, deeper, reason for Blair's failure to further the cherished goal of Middle East peace has been his whole approach to the problem. In everything he says there is the implicit assumption that peace is a gift that the West has in its power to bestow if only the Arabs would show reason and reject violence.

It is too late for that. The Middle East is now far too radicalised to be subject to "benign" Western intervention. On the Israeli side, it was radicalised by the second intifada and the wave of suicide bombings that accompanied it, driving previously moderate, pro-peace voices to take a more militaristic view, in which security overruled all other issues, including peace. Sharon's election, the construction of the security wall, the policy of unilateral withdrawal were the result. So was the 90 per cent public approval for the current war on Lebanon, with 84 per cent of Israeli voters backing the use of even greater force when polled two days after the Qana massacre.

But then, the Muslim world has become equally radicalised by the years of occupation and disappointed hopes. Hizbollah was born out of the two decades of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hamas was elected out of the years of Israeli oppression and PLA corruption. President Ahmadinejad came to power in Iran as the representative of a generation forged in the war with Iraq, in which Iran lost more men than Britain did in the First World War and fought alone, save for Syria's friendship. It is only Europe and America that have the comfort to see all issues as of the moment, with neither past nor consequence.

No outside body, not the US, Europe or the UN, can enter into this widening chasm of mutual fear and loathing unless they can offer something to both sides. Which is why the current efforts at a UN resolution to end the hostilities is proving so difficult. America is not a disinterested party. Nor is France, which has always taken the role of protector of the Christian government in Lebanon as opposed to the Muslims - which is why Washington has found it so easy to work with Paris on this resolution, as over Resolution 1559 demanding the disarming of Hizbollah. The mere fact that Israel has welcomed the latest resolution is reason enough to ensure it will be unacceptable to the other side.

The intervention of the Arab League to stop the resolution in its tracks is also a sign that the so-called division between moderates and fundamentalists, Shia and Sunni, and even Muslim and Christian Lebanese, is not something that the West and Israel can expect to work on this time. Israel's assault on Lebanese infrastructure and society has forced all the elements together and made even the royalist Arab regimes concerned at the feelings on the street.

If Blair and others in the West wish to further a Middle East settlement, it will have to be by bringing the radical forces in Hizbollah and Hamas into the process, not by demonising them. If he is to act as a mediator, he will have to position himself in the middle of the parties, not as an ally of Washington's taking one side over the other. You can't have both Middle East peace and a war to the death with radical Islam. If he thinks he can, Blair is only fooling himself, as he has fooled himself and others so often in the past in his espousal of the Middle East cause.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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