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Diplomats turn on Blair over Israel


Key points

• More than 50 former diplomats signed a letter to Tony Blair criticising his policies in the Middle East
• They urged Mr Blair to either persuade the US to change its approach in the region, or to withdraw his support from America
• The officials described the current policies regarding Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as both "doomed to failure"

Key quote: "We the undersigned former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials, including some who have long experience of the Middle East and others whose experience is elsewhere, have watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close co-operation with the United States."

Story in full: THE Prime Minister’s policy in the
Middle East came under unprecedented attack yesterday, when 52 former diplomats warned Tony Blair it was time for Britain to start influencing the United States’ "doomed" approach or withdraw its support.

A letter signed by former ambassadors, high commissioners and governors urged the Prime Minister to intervene to change US policy in the region as "a matter of the highest urgency".

They told Mr Blair they had "watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and
Iraq, in close co-operation with the United States".

The diplomats, who include former ambassadors to Iraq and Israel, highlighted two key initiatives dominated by Washington - the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and war in Iraq - and wrote off both as "doomed to failure".

Oliver Miles, the diplomat behind the letter and Britain’s former ambassador to Greece, said that never before had government foreign policy been so controversial. "It is an indication of our serious concern that what is probably the biggest ever such collective group has gone straight to government in this way," he said.

The letter came after Mr Blair followed the lead of George Bush, the
US president, in backing Israel’s plan for partial withdrawal from the occupied territories. Critics argue the proposals have effectively killed the internationally-agreed "road map" to peace.

Mr Blair was last night urged by Sir Menzies Campbell, the
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, to heed the advice.

"This is a most remarkable intervention in the debate about the Middle East from a group of people who are almost certainly the most expert in Britain on the issue," he said.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said
Downing Street was aware of the criticisms. "They are entitled to their views," he said. "What I would stress is that our objectives both in Iraq and the Palestinian conflict remain stability, peace and freedom in the Middle East."

The letter was delivered against a backdrop of continued violence in Iraq, with two US soldiers killed and five wounded when an explosion levelled part of a building in Baghdad as troops searched it for suspected production of chemical munitions. Cheering Iraqis looted their wrecked Humvees, taking away weapons and equipment.

In Basra, a British soldier was injured when an improvised bomb went off as a convoy of vehicles drove past.

And the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has been linked to the
al-Qaeda terror network, claimed responsibility for suicide boat attacks against Gulf oil terminals that killed three Americans and disabled Iraq’s biggest terminal for more than 24 hours.

Discussions were continuing yesterday about who should replace Spanish troops in and around the city of Najaf. One possibility is for Britain to send more troops to take over, although US troops yesterday took charge of a base in Najaf to increase pressure on the militia of the anti-US Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

In the House of Lords Baroness Symons, a
Foreign Office minister, said that Britain would retain the chain of command over any of its troops deployed outside the British-controlled area of southern Iraq.

Yesterday’s letter to Mr Blair was signed by former ambassadors to Baghdad and Tel Aviv, top Arab experts and non-regional specialists who served in other key embassies.

They urged Mr Blair to use his alliance with Mr Bush to exert "real influence as a loyal ally... If that is unacceptable or unwelcome, there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure."

And they criticised the apparent lack of a plan for life in Iraq post-Saddam Hussein.

"The Iraqis killed by coalition forces probably total between 10,000 and 15,000," they said, estimating the number killed in the last month in Fallujah alone at several hundred.

"There was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement… To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful."

Labour MP Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House of Commons, said the missive could not simply be shrugged off. "These former diplomats deserve a serious answer," he said.


It is well worth remembering that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has long-established "form" on the Israel issue. In short, all prime ministers have to deal with the reality of the FCO preferring to take an "Arabist" line on Middle East policy.

However, what is new is the very public nature of this attack on Mr Blair and his government’s strategy.

The real impact of this letter is likely to be on public perceptions of his leadership. Assaulted on every side, his domestic agenda all but non-existent, he wanted to become a foreign policy PM. On Europe, Iraq and now the Middle East, the widespread view is that he is prone to miscalculation and cannot be trusted. No matter how unfair that interpretation is, it will set the tone for the rest of his premiership.