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Blair Calls for Reappraisal of Mideast Strategy

Speaking in L.A., the British leader says the West must build an `alliance of moderation.'

August 02, 2006|Rebecca Trounson and Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writers

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking in Los Angeles on the final leg of a U.S. visit, called Tuesday for a broad reappraisal of the West's strategy for fighting extremism in the Middle East, saying that the battle would not be won by force alone.

Blair, whose speech came on a day of intensifying violence between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, said he still held out hope for a quick end to nearly three weeks of conflict there. But he said when that occurs, Western nations must commit to building an "alliance of moderation" to counter the religious and political extremism he said was growing across the Middle East.

"My argument today is this: We will not win the battle against this global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force, unless we show we are evenhanded, fair and just in our application of those values to the world," Blair told an audience of about 2,000 at a lunch sponsored by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, a nonprofit organization.

Blair said he was urging a dramatic change in the approach taken by Western nations to the volatile region, saying that greater efforts are needed to engage moderates in the Muslim and Arab world who might work alongside the West against those he described as radical, reactionary Muslims.

But he said that would not occur without greater emphasis on issues of importance to such nations, including efforts to alleviate poverty and boost trade.

"Unless we reappraise our strategy, unless we revitalize the broader global agenda on poverty, climate change, trade, and in respect to the Middle East, bend every sinew of our will to making peace between Israel and Palestine, we will not win. And this is a battle we must win," he said to applause from many in his audience.

Blair has drawn considerable criticism at home for his strong support of President Bush's policies in the Middle East, including standing alongside the president in Washington last week and joining him in declining to call for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon. Critics have said that stance in effect has allowed Israel to continue its airstrikes.

On Tuesday, Blair reiterated his position, while also expressing sadness about the loss of hundreds of lives in Lebanon.

He said that any cease-fire must be part of a broader agreement that includes the extension of Lebanese government authority to the southern part of the country, an area now under the control of Hezbollah guerrillas, and the return of two Israeli soldiers captured on the first day of fighting.

He also characterized the attack by Hezbollah on Israeli troops that set off the latest violence as a deliberate provocation, designed to induce "massive retaliation" that would inflame Arab and Muslim opinion against Israel and its Western supporters.

The British leader, as he has previously, expressed strong support for Israel, saying that he would never put the security of the Jewish state at risk. But he urged the Israeli government to move forward with the peace process with the Palestinians. He emphasized his support for the vision of Middle East peace laid out by Bush several years ago, of Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side.

Both in his nearly 40-minute address and at a meeting later Tuesday with editors and reporters at the Los Angeles Times, Blair emphasized that the United States and other Western governments needed to focus on reinvigorating the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In what may have been indirect criticism of the Bush administration, which has not been actively engaged in pushing peace talks forward, Blair said the "active leadership" of the United States in that process was essential, along with that of Europe, Russia and the United Nations.

"We need relentlessly, vigorously, to put a viable Palestinian government on its feet" and offer a vision of a path that would lead to final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Blair said. "Nothing else will do. Nothing else is more important to the success of our foreign policy.

"We all support a two-state solution," he said in the meeting at The Times. "But that's not going to happen unless it is absolutely day in and day out, week in and week out, striven for. And that's what we've got to do."

In addition, he said, the West must build alliances with moderate Mideast governments, must "see the job through in Iraq" and must make clear to the governments of Iran and Syria that they must stop supporting extremists or risk confrontation with the West.

Finally, offering what he described as a bit of unsolicited, if friendly, advice, the prime minister urged the U.S. government to take the lead on such issues as global climate change, poverty in Africa and world trade talks.

"Without America," he said, "it doesn't happen."

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