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Tony Blair's hints of military action against Iran last week brought out further splits at the heart of the Labor Party over the Middle East, Israel and terrorism.
During a week of crisis for the British prime minister, in which Blair was forced to accept the resignation of his staunch ally David Blunkett as work and pensions secretary after a scandal over his business interests, several backbench Labor MPs tore into Blair's Middle Eastern policies.
The MPs fear that their leader, viewed by many within his party as a political conservative leading a predominantly leftist party, was planning for another Anglo-American conflict in the region, this time against Iran.
After Iranian President Ahmad Ahmadinejad's demand for Israel to be "wiped off the map," Blair held a barnstorming press conference last weekend in which he labelled the comments "a disgrace," added that they "revolted" him, and warned that Iran would soon be considered "a real threat to our world security and stability."
The attack drew immediate comparisons among skeptical Labor MPs with many such verbal tirades before the 2003 Iraq invasion and last week in the House of Commons, the prime minister faced intense pressure from MPs determined to stop any further military action before it had even started.
Labor MP Ken Purchase drew prominent nods of approval from his party colleagues at last Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions as he warned Blair: "The people of this country are in no mood for a military adventure in Iran."
Seeking to prevent further conflict within his already strained party over foreign policy, Blair sought to play down his earlier comments. "I'm very happy to say that I did not talk either explicitly or implicitly about a military threat to Iran," the prime minister replied.
But in a stern warning he added: "Iran has to realize that the international community cannot tolerate continuing conduct that is supporting terrorism round the world, supporting terrorism not just in the Middle East but elsewhere, that is in breach of its nuclear weapons responsibilities and obligations under the Atomic Energy Authority.
"I did want to make it clear, and make clear again now, the statements by the Iranian president in respect of Israel are completely and totally unacceptable." Left-wing Labor MPs also last week stepped up their pressure on the government to take a tougher line with Israel's West Bank settlements and security barrier in a heated fortnight Foreign Office Questions on Tuesday.
MP Richard Burden pointed out figures from the national newspaper, The Guardian, showing that in one year, "Israel has moved 14,000 settlers into the West Bank and seized [37 square kilometers] of Palestinian territory around Jerusalem." He added: "Given that that is contrary to Israel's road-map commitments and that it destroys the possibility of a Palestinian state, will the minister say what he suggests the international community should do about that?"
Burden was backed by senior MP Sir Menzies Campbell, deputy leader of the left-wing Liberal Democrat party, which opposed the Iraq War from the start, and has previously called for a tougher stance by Blair's government on Israel.
In a calculated attempt to satisfy critics who claim the government is too pro-Israeli, Foreign Minister Kim Howells provided Israel with the sternest rebuke from any British minister in recent weeks.
"The road map is clear that Israel should freeze all settlement activity and dismantle all outposts built since 2001," he said. "Sadly, Israel is doing neither. Continued settlement construction in the West Bank is contrary to international law and a clear obstacle to peace. We continue to call on Israel to meet its road map commitments, including on settlements." The minister, however, qualified his remark by stressing that Israel had a right to defend itself.
As the ideological war between Labor's right and left intensified over Middle Eastern policies last week, Blair and his ministers faced a huge backlash when introducing Britain's toughest ever anti-terrorism laws, which were considered so draconian even the right-wing Conservative Party opposed them.
The conflict reached crisispoint last Wednesday night when Labor rebels and Conservatives refused to accept proposed powers for police to hold all terror suspects for 90 days without charge and Blair looked certain to lose a vote on the matter in the Commons. Slamming the plans as a massive attack on civil liberties, they looked poised to humiliate the government by voting the plan down in favour of a maximum of 28 days.
With the policies facing oblivion, Home Secretary Charles Clarke capitulated just before a vote could take place and promised all-party talks to develop alternative proposals within a week. Temporarily at least, most of the rebels have now agreed to pull back their tanks from Blair's lawn.
Divisions between the government and much of the Labor Party on terrorism and Middle East policy now appear more acute than at any time since Blair came to power in 1997.
With the prime minister having already announced he will stand down before Britain's next election, Blair's authority is beginning to look increasingly weak and the battle for the heart and soul of the British Labor Party threatens to leave it paralysed.
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Bob Kirk, Los Angeles, CA, USA:
Tony Blair's difficulties with his own party are somewhat similar to Ariel Sharon's
with his party. Both men led their parties to resounding victories and both are perceived, by a significant number of party members, to have reversed their party's traditional stance. Also, the issues are broadly similar, centering on security. Sharon believes that leaving Gaza is good for Israel as was leaving Lebanon
even though the threats from both continue. Blair believes that the traditional British and European stance of appeasement to non-democratic Arab and Muslim nations is incompatible with the need to fight the global threat posed by Islamic terrorism. I believe that both these leaders are doing a good job under difficult circumstances. Sharon, though, has the hardest challenges by far, since Israel faces the continued threats of destruction by Iran and its Palestinian supporters, Britain faces the much lesser threat of domestic Islamic terror. I hope that Blair remains strong in the face of Labour MPs who shame themselves with their obsessive attacks on Israel and their blind support for Palestinians who have rejected peace or failed to work for it.
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