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Critics Urge Blair to Stand Apart on Lebanon

The prime minister faces increasing dissent over what many see as Britain's unquestioning support for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

July 25, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — In Britain, it's all "Yo, Blair," all the time.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, long under fire for his backing of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, faces growing dissent over Britain's failure to challenge America's lead in the region and call for an immediate cease-fire to halt mounting civilian casualties in Lebanon.

On Monday, Blair echoed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in insisting it was too early to call for a halt to hostilities without a plan for holding both sides to a lasting end to the fighting. He pledged that Britain was working urgently to broker a solution "as swiftly as possible."

But unease has been mounting within Blair's Labor Party over the government's tacit support for Israeli bombing in Lebanon, prompting calls from the left and the right for a break in what many see as unquestioning support for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

President Bush's greeting of "Yo, Blair," during a private conversation at a summit of major industrial nations a week ago has been derided in the news media as a galling example of Blair's subservient role. (Couldn't Bush at least have greeted Blair with a more equal "Yo, Tony?" some pundits wondered.) And the prime minister's self-effacing offers to draw flak for a triumphant U.S. diplomacy have been condemned as undermining any independent British policy in the region.

"Faced with George Bush's frat boy bonhomie, Tony Blair retreated into English middle-class incoherence. It might have been endearing from Hugh Grant; it was unbecoming for a prime minister," the Sunday Times opined.

"It may be, as Downing Street says, that the informality told of the strength of their relationship. Perhaps, but it also told of a special relationship that has degenerated into one of master and servant," the newspaper said.

The continuing violence in Lebanon has pushed Blair even further into a corner, with pointed criticism among some members of his Labor Party over the government's failure to criticize the Israeli bombing campaign -- while many opposition lawmakers voiced support for Israel's right to defend itself against Hezbollah attacks.

Blair from the beginning has insisted, as has Washington, that it is impossible to broker a one-sided cease-fire that does not address the causes of the outbreak of violence, including Israel's need to prevent future Hezbollah rocket attacks against communities in northern Israel.

"What is occurring at the present time in Lebanon is a catastrophe. Who could possibly watch the pictures of innocent civilians being killed -- and incidentally, innocent civilians are being killed in Israel too -- without wanting it to stop now?" Blair said Monday.

"But if it stops, it has to stop on both sides, and that's not going to happen unless there's a plan in place to make it happen. And I can assure you that we are bending every single bit of our diplomatic, our political effort to make sure that happens as swiftly as possible."

Blair has taken a leading role in calling for an international stabilization force to guarantee peace in southern Lebanon, preceded by the release of captured Israeli soldiers and an agreement "on both sides" to stop hostilities.

But the frustration within his own government over continued civilian casualties as diplomacy inched forward became apparent over the weekend, when Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells unleashed a stinging critique of the situation during a visit to Beirut.

"I very much hope that the Americans understand what is happening in Lebanon. The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people. These have not been surgical strikes," Howells said.

"And it's very difficult, I think, to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used. You know, if they're chasing Hezbollah, then go for Hezbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation."

Howells later toned down his remarks when he traveled to Israel, conceding it was pointless to establish a cease-fire not grounded in resolving the roots of the conflict. But Blair's office insisted Howells' comments reflected the essence of Blair's discomfort with the deaths and injuries of civilians and underscored the urgency with which the British government was attempting to end the violence.

Newspapers such as the Observer portrayed the comments as an important shift in Britain's uniformly pro-U.S. stand in the Middle East. "Britain dramatically broke ranks with George Bush," the newspaper reported in its lead story Sunday.

But analysts here said Blair was by no means ready to pull away from Washington, despite substantial reported concern within the ranks of diplomats in the Foreign Office over what many see as Israel's disproportionate response.

To the contrary, many said, making sure that British policy is coordinated with the world's premier power broker has been a cornerstone of Blair's pragmatic approach to his dealings abroad.

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