Blair to focus on Israeli-Palestinian accord

'Peace in the Middle East' is at head of prime minister's foreign agenda as his time in office draws to a close

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be at what he called "the core" of the foreign policy approach of Tony Blair's government during what remains of his last term as Britain's prime minister. The focus on Israel was laid out in the Queen's Speech at the state opening of Parliament on Wednesday, and in private testimony by Blair to the Iraq Study Group (ISG) the previous day. Britain's foreign policy objectives, as outlined by Blair's foreign policy team, begin with a commitment "to peace in the Middle East" through a "lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians," along with support for "new Iraqi in its efforts to build an enduring constitutional settlement, and to assist the Government of Afghanistan." Other foreign policy objectives presented in the government-prepared speech read by Queen Elizabeth to Parliament on Wednesday was a halt to the spread of "weapons of mass destruction, including addressing international concerns over North Korea and Iran," strengthening the EU and NATO, reforming the UN, further World Trade Organization Doha talks, an "Africa focus" including a "resolution to the crisis in Darfur," and fostering global alliances with the EU and the US. "The theme of the Queen's Speech is taking the long-term decisions necessary to give us security and opportunity in a rapidly changing world," Blair said during the ensuing debate. He defended his government's Iraq and Afghanistan policies, saying "it is important that we hold firm, that we show strength, that we stand up to the forces both in Afghanistan and Iraq that are trying to prevent those countries from getting the democracy their people so obviously want." Conservative Party leader David Cameron savaged Blair's prosecution of the war in Iraq but backed the government's focus on Israel as the key to bringing peace to the region. However he argued that "it is on the moderate Arab governments that our efforts should concentrate. Their support for stability in Iraq is what we most need, and the key to securing that support is a fresh and unremitting push to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict." Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell also attacked the prime minister, saying his government's foreign policy failures had marked his term in office. "For all his achievements, Suez defined Anthony Eden; for all his achievements, Iraq will define this prime minister," Campbell said. However, he concurred with the prime minister and the leader of the Conservatives that there "is an overwhelming need to find a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. "The first president George Bush knew that. He and [secretary of state] James Baker were the architects of the Madrid conference that produced the Oslo agreement, which so nearly succeeded. There can be no chance of long-term stability in the Middle East until there is a settlement of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians," Campbell said in Parliament on Wednesday evening. Blair had made Israel his top foreign policy priority in a speech on Monday at the Guildhall, saying "we should start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core." In testimony via a private video-phone link-up between London and Washington on Tuesday, Blair told the ISG a resolution to the conflict in Iraq lay through a regional peace plan "that focused firstly on resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine," his spokesman told a press briefing at 10 Downing Street. Blair told the ISG, a panel led by Baker tasked with providing options over Iraq to President George W. Bush, that the "plan for Iraq" should be to build support for better governance and fiscal responsibility for the Iraqi government, "rooting out" sectarianism within the Iraqi security forces, and equipping its army. What happened outside Iraq was as important as developments inside the country, Blair told the ISG, his spokesman reported. The "biggest single factor" in getting "moderate Muslim countries" to support a "new Iraq" was through progress "on Israel and Palestine as part of a strategy for the Middle East as a whole." Asked whether Britain believed that "Sunnis and Shias blowing each other up" was due to the lack of a functioning Palestinian state, the prime minister's spokesman said the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was not the objective cause of the violence. However, bringing peace to Israel and the Palestinians would remove one of the primary tools used by Islamists to radicalize Muslim opinion, he argued. "It would be much easier to address those issues if moderate Muslim opinion could be convinced that people were serious about getting a settlement which from their perspective recognized Palestine as a state, while at the same time, gave Israel the security that it needed and deserved," the spokesman noted.