Why Blair must step aside

By William Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 31/07/06):

WHAT WOULD be the reasonable objectives of British policy in the Lebanon crisis, given the limitations of our power and influence? The primary objective should surely be to weaken Hezbollah. They are the aggressors; they have attacked Israel and kidnapped Israeli soldiers as a deliberate act of provocation. They are a terrorist organisation, a threat to British interests and world peace.

However, it is not at all likely that they can be completely eradicated, any more than we were able to destroy the IRA, or earlier Irish terrorist organisations going back to the United Irish of the 1790s. Some terrorist organisations, based on the Shia community of south Lebanon, will probably still exist in 20 years’ time.

The danger of trying to eradicate a communal terrorist group of this sort is that one may simply unite their community behind them. That does not mean that it is wrong to use calculated force against Hezbollah but that the force must be defined in its scope and realistic in its strategy.

Britain should therefore support Israeli counter-attacks on Hezbollah’s rocket sites. However, the aim of weakening Hezbollah requires the strengthening of the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese Army. After the Syrians left the Lebanon it was intended that the Lebanese government should take over responsibility for keeping the peace in southern Lebanon. It was not strong enough to do so, but it remains an essential element in any pacification. The Israeli counter-attack on Hezbollah has extended to being an attack on Lebanon as a whole, with heavy civilian casualties, including children. This is very counter-productive and risks uniting all Lebanese Muslims behind Hezbollah. That is against Israel’s interest; neither Britain nor the United States should support it.

To weaken Hezbollah, it is right to attack their frontline capacity, as the Israelis have been doing. Yet it would also have been right to confine the attacks to the frontline areas from which rockets were actually being launched. Israeli policy should have been to work, as far as possible, with the Lebanese Government, whose interests before the crisis erupted it largely shared. Israel wants freedom from attack; so does Lebanon.

More broadly, the strategy of the United States should have sought to isolate Hezbollah. The terrorists are dependent on the support of Syria and Iran and when these countries want to put pressure on Israel and the US they use Hezbollah as their instrument; they supplied arms, and presumably authorised the timing of the attack, though Hezbollah would have had some freedom of action once they had received their stockpile of rockets. Obviously Syria and Iran are difficult states to deal with, but the objective should have been to isolate Hezbollah both from their external suppliers and from the support of the local Lebanese population. If this was the strategy, it has not been achieved.

What has been achieved is a weakening, not of Hezbollah, but of the alliances of the United States. At the G8 meeting the split was six to two for an immediate ceasefire, with the United States and Britain as the two dissidents. A similar split was repeated at the international meeting in Rome last week.

Britain has been the sole ally of the US-Israeli policy of delaying the ceasefire until a sustainable peace can be attained — which might never happen. Yet British public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of seeking an immediate ceasefire. In the House of Commons, William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, observed last week that “the idea that it is somehow in the interests of Israel for the fighting to go on for several more weeks may prove to be woefully misguided”. That is now the official Conservative position.

The Labour Party in the country is almost unanimously opposed to US-Israeli policy. The Prime Minister’s position has become almost impossible; perhaps he has been saved by the recess. On Saturday the Leader of the House, Jack Straw, who was only recently dismissed from the Foreign Office, issued a statement in his constituency. “These are not surgical strikes but have instead caused death and misery among innocent civilians . . . a continuation of such tactics by Israel could destabilise the already fragile Lebanese nation.” In this, Mr Straw certainly speaks for British public opinion, for a large majority of the Labour Party and very probably for the Cabinet as well.

I believe in the need to defend Israel, which I see ultimately as a threatened nation; I believe in the alliance with the United States; I believe in the importance of helping Iraq to recover and develop, though that process has obviously been mishandled. But I do not believe in a system of dominoes in which when Israel makes a mistake, the United States has to back it, and when the United States backs Israel’s mistake, Britain has to come into line. That strategy is no help to Israel or to British interests.

Of course, one can understand, and even sympathise with what Tony Blair has been trying to achieve. He wants to protect the unity of the Anglo-American alliance. He knows that American public opinion is still behind the President. His greatest trouble is that there is now a fundamental conflict between American and British public opinion over the Lebanon, and that his Cabinet knows it.

Mr Blair still has real political capital in the US, both with President Bush and with the American public. But he has virtually exhausted his political capital at home. The task of protecting the Anglo-American relationship and developing a Middle Eastern strategy that British public opinion will support is now nearly impossible, but Gordon Brown as a new Prime Minister would at least have some chance.

Mr Blair is now the victim of his nine years in office. He is no longer the man who can hope to achieve the impossible.