Welcoming a brave, bloodied PM

Blair has paid a much higher political price for his support of Israel than any of his predecessors.

blair speaks  298.88 (photo credit: AP)
blair speaks 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A leaked Downing Street memo last week outlined plans for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "farewell tour" of the United Kingdom in the last months of his premiership. It contains meetings with people around the country, visits to iconic locations, major interviews and even appearances on children's television shows. The memo was written before civil war broke out this week in the Labor party and forced Blair to announce he would be leaving within a year. Blair is, as of this week, officially a lame duck prime minister - in office but gradually less and less in power. And despite his best-laid plans, the farewell tour begins this weekend and the first stop is right here, in the Promised Land. At least there could never have been better timing for the whirlwind visit. Blair's got to be wishing that he could stay in a country where he's much more popular right now than at home. Instead he'll have to fly back and address the Trade Union Congress, a traditional Labor stronghold, filled now with Blair's critics. Blair is currently probably the most popular British prime minister among the Jews here since the era of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, with the exception perhaps of Winston Churchill. Friendly towards Israel throughout the past nine years, he surpassed himself during the Lebanon War, insisting on a comprehensive solution to the Hizbullah threat before pressing for a cease-fire and refusing to place blame on Israel for a "disproportionate" retaliation to the attacks. In geopolitical terms, Blair's unflagging support was less important than that of US President George Bush, but from a personal point of view, Blair's stand was much more courageous. While Bush was supported by virtually every member on both sides of Senate and Congress and a majority of public opinion, Blair stood by his position despite almost his entire parliamentary party and most of the British media blaming him for kowtowing to Washington and acting as an accomplice in the murder of Lebanese children. There was no political gain for Blair in supporting Israel's right to return fire to Hizbullah's attacks, just as it would have been probably more beneficial to him to oppose Bush over his Middle East policy. Other European leaders such as Germany's Gerhard Schroeder preferred to gain domestic points by facing up to the US over Iraq. Blair's insistence to go against the advice of many of his advisers and cabinet colleagues and his own political interest is clear proof that he was acting on his own deeply held beliefs. It couldn't have been easy being attacked in such a violent way every day, and if Cherie Blair's comments four years ago about understanding the motives of suicide bombers are anything to go by, he must have also been getting quite a bit of stick after going back to the upstairs apartment at night. Blair seems to be one of the only European leaders to really appreciate the danger of Islamic terrorism and has been brave enough to speak out against it, demanding Britain's Muslim community take responsibility for its extreme elements - unlike most other politicians in the country who are prevented by political correctness and Muslim constituents from saying things the way they are. Ironically, despite the inborn suspicion of Israel and Zionism, some would say even latent anti-Semitism, in many parts of the British political establishment, there have been quite a few prime ministers, including most of those who actually achieved something, whose hearts were in the right place and could usually be relied upon at the moment of truth: Lloyd George, Churchill, Eden, Wilson, Thatcher and now Blair. But Blair seems to have paid a much higher political price for his support of Israel than any of his predecessors. Despite being scarred by the bitter public debate going on in Britain - and especially among Labor members - over the legitimacy of the Iraq war, in which Blair joined Bush in committing thousands of British troops, he stood by his principles yet again. And his popularity ratings took a hammering as a result. Blair's leadership has been waning in Britain for over a year, but many commentators believe that the controversy over his policy regarding the Lebanon War hastened the rebellion in the Labor ranks that forced Thursday's announcement. The risk inherent in supporting Israel is evident from the way both Blair's successor within Labor, Gordon Brown, and the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, have both been extremely careful not to make any comments or commit themselves in any way on the subject. Israelis are less aware of other reasons for the gradual falling out between Blair and the British public: the hubris of New Labor, its addiction to media spin and the series of scandals involving Blair's closest allies. They understand that he is paying now for putting his head above the parapet when Israel was in danger, and will remain grateful. He's definitely more popular here right now than our own homegrown leaders, and that isn't the only reason for them to be jealous of him. Blair knows now for sure that he will be in office for another nine months, which is more than any Israeli politician can say.