Monday, September 11, 2006

Blair takes peace mission to a hostile Beirut

TONY BLAIR inspected the ground zero of his Middle East policy yesterday with a trip to bomb-ravaged Beirut.

The embattled British Prime Minister flew on to Lebanon after a two-day peace mission to neighbouring Israel and the West Bank.

Tight security was deployed around the state building in central Beirut to protect Mr Blair from about 1500 protesting Lebanese angered by his support for the recent Israeli onslaught, which killed more than 800 civilians and caused billions of dollars in damage and losses.

Mr Blair is believed to be hoping for a diplomatic triumph to boost his crumbling domestic and international prestige. He has just endured a disastrous week in which he was forced to set a one-year deadline for his retirement or face a leadership challenge from within the Labour Party.

The main catalyst for the discontent was Mr Blair's staunch support for Israel and the US during the 34-day war sparked by the July 12 raid in which Hezbollah guerillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others.

Mr Blair will thus face a difficult task in winning over Lebanese opinion. While he went straight into a meeting with the Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, yesterday, two Hezbollah members of the elected government declined to attend a planned meeting and the Speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, who is close to Hezbollah, went abroad on Saturday.

On the eve of his arrival, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's most senior Shiite cleric and a spiritual guide to Hezbollah, said Mr Blair had been "a real partner in the Israeli-American war on Lebanon" and should not be allowed to visit.

Before his departure for Beirut, Mr Blair achieved a symbolic breakthrough when the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, stated separately that they would meet each other without preconditions.

Israel has refused to allow any formal contacts with senior Palestinian Authority officials, including the moderate Mr Abbas, since parliamentary elections in January brought a surprise victory for the Islamic militant group Hamas, which Israel shuns as a terrorist organisation. In practice, however, both sides say that no preparations for talks are under way.

Mr Blair also stated that Britain would welcome the formation of a new Palestinian unity government including Hamas and Mr Abbas's Fatah party - perhaps setting the scene for an end to the diplomatic and financial boycott imposed on the Palestinian Authority by Israel and the West after Hamas came to power.

The boycott has led to surging poverty and desperation in the West Bank and in particular Gaza, where Israeli raids and bombardments have killed hundreds of Palestinians this year, many of them civilians.

Such a breakthrough would depend on Hamas - as part of the new government - accepting United Nations, Western and Israeli demands that it end armed resistance, recognise Israel's right to exist and accept previous agreements recognising Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories pending a final settlement.

A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the group was prepared for a coalition with Fatah, but "not according to standards that are dictated". Instead, Hamas has sought to blur the issue by accepting the so-called "prisoners' document", a Palestinian peace initiative that calls for independence in Arab lands seized by Israel in 1967.

By doing so, some say, Hamas is accepting a de facto recognition of Israel's existence in the other 80 per cent of the former British mandate of Palestine, lands that Israeli forces occupied in 1948.

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