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(photo credit: Associated Press)
In the face of growing domestic political pressure, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday he would not abandon his alliance with US President George W. Bush over Lebanon and called for "maximum restraint" as well as "maximum pressure" to achieve a sustainable Middle East peace.
Speaking in San Francisco, Blair dismissed speculation that his government was divided in the face of wilting public approval and open dissent in the cabinet over Lebanon, saying he had "complete inner self-confidence" in his policies.
"Everyone is going to have to exercise maximum restraint and maximum pressure and will to get the Security Council resolution agreed," Blair said. A sustainable cessation of hostilities, however must not only ensure "security for Israel, but also the taking back by the government of Lebanon of full control of their country and then the rebuilding and reconstruction that is necessary," he added.
Last week, Blair was challenged publicly by his former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who called Israel's response to Hizbullah "disproportionate," a term Blair has refused to use.
The tension within the government over Middle East policy also came amid troublesome polling figures for Blair. A survey by Ipsos MORI released July 30 found 67 percent of voters were dissatisfied with Blair's job performance, while only 23% expressed support. Among Labor Party voters, less than half said they were satisfied with the prime minister.
On Friday, Straw, who was demoted by Blair from foreign secretary to leader of the House of Commons on May 5, became the first member of the cabinet to break ranks, writing to Muslim leaders in his Blackburn constituency that Israel's actions "have not been 'surgical strikes' but have instead caused death and misery among innocent civilians."
"Disproportionate action only escalates an already dangerous situation," Straw said, noting that the "continuation of such tactics by Israel could further destabilize the already fragile Lebanese nation."
Straw's comments came two days after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan telephoned him "on the evening of his 60th birthday", a spokesman for Annan told The Jerusalem Post. The spokesman denied speculation Annan telephoned to seek Straw's assistance over Lebanon.
"It was a personal call" and no notes were taken of the conversation, he said. However, Annan was not trying to "sway British policy," as he "does not involve himself in the domestic politics of member states."
Straw's breach with Blair came one day after a cabinet meeting at which, it was widely reported, two Blair loyalists, Environment Secretary David Miliband and Lord Grocott, chief whip of the House of Lords, urged the prime minister to adopt a neutral stance in the conflict.
Speaking to British television, Blair downplayed the division, saying "there was a perfectly good discussion at the cabinet actually, and it certainly wasn't a divisive discussion at all. Of course what they were saying is 'let us make sure with urgency we can stop a situation that's killing innocent people.'"
Foreign office staffers have also pressed Blair to break with the US and join Europe in calling for an immediate ceasefire, the BBC reported Tuesday, while John Williams, the former chief spokesman for the Foreign Office, called for an Anglo-French-German alliance to negotiate an immediate cease-fire.
Williams, who left government this summer after serving as spokesman for the past three foreign secretaries, wrote in the Guardian that Blair "should now use his credit in Washington and Israel to persuade President Bush and prime minister [Ehud] Olmert that their [Lebanon] strategy has failed, and must be abandoned" and a European-led approach adopted.
"If Tony Blair did that, he could repair some of the collateral damage done to his reputation in the last three weeks," Williams wrote, noting however, that it was "hard to see American diplomacy doing what is necessary while President Bush remains in office."
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett refused to call Israel's response "disproportionate", and declined to be drawn over her predecessor's statements. "When people are in times of intense difficulty, if those who have the responsibility of trying to get a movement forward use words that are said to put them or are felt to put them in a place where it shows you don't really understand our problem, people stop listening," she said. "We cannot afford for Israel to stop listening."
As foreign secretary, Straw was criticized for pandering to Muslim voters. Although the Labor Party had held his Blackburn seat since 1945, party campaign managers treated it as "marginal" in the 2005 election, fearing that Muslims, who make up 25 percent of the voters in his constituency, would desert Straw over his support for British policy in Iraq.
While Straw was returned to Parliament in 2005, his share of the vote fell from 54% to 42%, with the Muslim Political Action Committee-UK campaigning actively against him.
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