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Handling the Middle East

James Landale | 14:12 UK time, Tuesday, 8 August 2006

There are many things that prime ministers would like to do to chief political correspondents, but one form of torture that's open to them is the early morning interview.

The call tends to come late at night - "could you be at Downing Street for 0630 hours tomorrow for a quick chat with the PM?"

And despite the resulting lack of sleep and the hastily re-arranged plans, it is of course an offer you can't refuse. So it was that early this morning the PM and I peered at each other across microphones in the Cabinet Room and tried to make sense of the Middle East conflict (watch the interview here).

It's his last interview before finally leaving for his holiday in the Caribbean, and his message was clear: the UN should "take account" of Lebanon's concerns that the draft UN resolution doesn't call for Israel to withdraw from its territory. But that shouldn't mean agreement on the resolution should be subject to any further delay.

But how do you get the Lebanese onside?

Well, some of the thinking in Number 10 goes like this - you persuade Lebanon that the Israelis are keen to leave and will do so in the short term, after a cessation of violence, but only if they can be replaced by a mixture of Lebanese troops and existing UN forces which are already on the ground (they are called Unifil, they number about 2000 and they've been there for years).

These troops, Downing Street sources suggest, could be "bolstered" and given a more active role. So under this scenario, there'd be no big bang withdrawal by Israel, just a slow, incremental, coordinated pull back, with no vacuum filled by Hezbollah. That at least is the theory. There are a lot of 'ifs' built into the plan and the reality on the ground, as ever, could prove rather different.

And what of that other transfer of power, following the withdrawal of Mr Blair from the Whitehall region?

Well, keen to ensure there's no vacuum at the heart of government, Mr Blair has as expected handed over the reins to John Prescott who's now "coordinating government policy" - civil service speak for sort of being in charge. But will the deputy prime minister have be dealing with the Middle East?

"I've always been in charge of this," Mr Blair said this morning. "I do that by telephone wherever I am." So, now we know.


  • 1.
  • At 03:19 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Richard O'shea wrote:

How does the prime minister intend to adjust Israels extreme and indescriminate use of force? Today we hear that they will destroy any moving vehicle, without cause, just the possibility that it may be carrying war material. This should not be tolerated nor should attempts be made to justify it as the result of such force is the potential loss of inocent life.

How does the prime minister intend to adjust Israels abuse of the institution of the UN? Using the threat of taking inocent life to pressurise the UN into decisions that benefit only Israel is abhorent to humanity, biased and unsustainable.

How does the prime minister intend to adjust his language to better reflect the views of the British people. How does he intend to adjust his own personal views on the Middle East, views that are not contained in the parties manifesto.

When the dust settles and the wholesale destruction of Lebanon is seen, how will the peace be maintained in the light of such injustice?

  • 2.
  • At 03:31 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Malcolm wrote:

re: "But will the deputy prime minister have be dealing with the Middle East?

"I've always been in charge of this," Mr Blair said this morning. "I do that by telephone wherever I am." So, now we know."

So why did Blair stay on as he did if he was only a phone call away? Considering that Blair has been sidelined by the US and France on this matter you can only come to the conclusion that what we were witnessing was simply a PR exercise.

As for John Prescott being charge, can you imagine the outrage of the country's whelkstall owners on that very notion!

  • 3.
  • At 03:31 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Gill James wrote:

It is somewhat surprising that while Tony Blair comes in for some not so subtle criticism by James Landale with regard to his holiday plans, Mr Robinson is enjoying his holiday with no adverse comment whatsoever by his stand in!

James, as I said in my post to your previous blogging, Blair does not trust Prescott with the Middle East. That's why he stayed back until he was 'happier' with the situation. It seems I was proven right (my Politics degree is proving its use!).

  • 5.
  • At 03:54 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Paul wrote:

So John Prescott, bastion of democracy, is in charge - unless of course something important comes up. Good to see the man finally able to justify to the public his huge salary, for which he appears to do not much at all.
JP will be coordinating government policy, which largely seems to be in reverse. Which involves him doing what exactly?
I know this man is essential to the current government, TB said so - it must be true. For the life of me, I just can't work out why. I have heard that he acts as a go-between, linking the activities of various ministers who, for some reason, cannot talk to each other - so basically he's the daddy.

  • 6.
  • At 03:58 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Ian wrote:

So, if Mt Blair is 'always in charge of Middle East', what is the point of Margaret Beckett?

  • 7.
  • At 04:04 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Conall Bullock wrote:

You call that an interview?

He said lots yet answered nothing.

Take off the kid gloves next time.

Or get someone who will.

  • 8.
  • At 04:07 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • RAY wrote:

You like Nick and others wont get anything from him as you are all in effect his placemen. The last truly great Pol Ed was John Oakley and Marr
Nick et al are the preferred choice of Tonys. Show him john Humpreys he runs away.

  • 9.
  • At 05:02 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Luke Davies wrote:

Do you think your readers are complete morons? Because you certainly write as if we had a collective reading age of 7.

Last night on Channel 4 News I watched Jon Snow interviewing the UN ambassador and a political correspondent from the Washington Post. I learned more in that 5 minute interview than I have learned from the entire BBC website's output since the conflict began. Why can't you stop writing star-struck drivel about meeting Blair for breakfast and start writing some detailed political analysis, isnt that what you are paid for?

Hello James, when Mr Blair asserts he is in charge of this situation from the UK perspective, I wonder what he might say about the Independents headlines this morning:

"29 Lebanese Army soldiers have been killed. 3,293 Lebanese have been wounded. 45 per cent of the casualties have been children. 913,000 Lebanese have been displaced (300,000 of whom are children). 94 Israelis have been killed and 1,867 wounded."

As Mr Blair suggests, the action moves to New York for the next phase of stall tactics. Surely anyone seeing the horror of the last few weeks must realise the repercssions long term, and anyone feeling secure in that part od the world have had their illusions shattered for the rest of their lifetimes?

We don't know the extent of what may happen next, we might be mindful that we have witnessed an incident not to be forgotten, and anyone either side with a notion to extreme behaviour most likely will act upon it.

Blair is caught in his own rhetoric and will have reason to regret, unfortunately he is not made that way, so the best we will get is pious belief that he was guided by God no doubt. Any words I might add here in frustration are unprintable on the BBC, be sure I have muttered them in disbelief about our Prime Minister and his behaviour!

  • 11.
  • At 05:26 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Brian Tomkinson, Bolton,UK wrote:

Having watched the interview, I suggest that next time you are asked to be at Downing Street at 0630 hours you check if it will be worth your time and trouble to be at Blair's beck and call. It certainly was not on this occasion. No doubt you were briefed what to ask and the result was of no news value. What a waste of broadcasting time and your "beauty sleep".

James, any chance you could ring up the PMOS or the Foreign Office and ask what it is that Margaret Beckett does to justify her title and get back to us on that? Perhaps she should be called the assistant to the Foreign Secretary?

On an entirely unrelated note (ahem) I've always been slightly amused at the way de facto dictators end up with so many titles. All hail the right honourable President, Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Commander-in chief Anthony Charles Ly...

  • 13.
  • At 06:42 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • David Gibson wrote:

Politicians are judged by their actions not their words. Despite all of his sophistry, this PM has obstructed an 'immediate' ceasefire from the outset. Now, after an initial window-dressing delay, amid a failure to bring about a ceasefire, he's off on his holidays.

Enough, now is the time for his 'immediate' resignation.

  • 14.
  • At 06:50 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • iain stevenson wrote:

If Prescott were to deal with the middle east we could expect world war 3 within weeks.I think the reason that Blair delayed his holiday by 4 days is because he knows that its his last one as prime minister.This time next year he can spend al the time he likes in Barbados-as a private citizen.Lets all pray for that day to come as quickly as possible!

So TB has finally realised no-one wants anything to do with him.
So hand the country over to an even bigger irrelevance.
Enjoy the hols!

  • 16.
  • At 09:53 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Keith Donaldson wrote:

I am reasonably confident that Britain, with significant input from Tony Blair has played a considerable role, behind the scenes in allowing France and the USA to put together the initial UN draft resolution. I suspect that without Britain’s input a much more pro-Israeli document largely influenced by the USA would have resulted - assuming any agreement was reached at all.

It was quite wrong for Britain and Tony Blair not to have been party to a call for an immediate ceasefire at the earliest stages of the current conflict. Even in the unlikely event that it had worked, there would have been no reason not to proceed to further negotiations anyway. I am sure that it is true, as Tony Blair indicated today, that without political agreement, there is no hope for a sustained ceasefire but, as a result of proceeding as we have done at the behest of the USA, the delay may prove to have been too much.

If the international community is to be involved in seeking long term solutions in the Middle East, most crucially to the Israel – Palestine problem, the answers initially will be found not in the Middle East itself, but within the individual countries, which comprise the whole international community. Attempts to find solutions in the region must focus on the needs of Middle Eastern peoples and not of the nations of the rest of the world. Therefore, the nations of the international community must first examine and modify their own foreign policies towards the area, so that they truly serve the interests of long term peace in the Middle East and not their own narrow self interest. For instance the USA must recognise that as the world’s only superpower (at least for now), it must act and be seen to be acting in an even handed and non-partisan manner having a greater regard for the plight of others than its own prosperity, thus leading (not least Israel) by example. And the UK must be brave enough to stand up against its friends when necessary, not just its opponents. In addition more must be done to understand those nations, which currently regard themselves as being on the periphery of the international community in order to encourage them to embrace it. Only then, for instance, can all Muslim countries in the region be expected to accept the legitimacy of Israel, as they must.

One thing that has become apparent over the last four weeks is that a ‘War on Terror’ is insufficient on its own to defuse the worldwide terrorist threat. While never condoning it, the entire world must try harder to understand the psychology of terrorism and to tackle the political and economic injustices, which breed extremism. Amongst other things this may require a wholesale and expensive reappraisal of our approach to Third World poverty, an acceptance of broader cultural definitions of democracy and a stronger commitment to the principles of the United Nations.

  • 17.
  • At 10:40 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Stanley wrote:

The reality is that Israel is invading Lebanon as part of a planned push forward towards it's continuing plan to occupy and eliminate arab peoples. (no I'm not arabic)

It is absolutely astounding to me that journalism is not seeking to address this clear and historical abuse of rights and war crimes from the Israeli army.

However misguided Hezbullah's actions were that precipitated this full scale invasion one doesn't need to be a political analyst to see the writing on the wall: Israel's goal with the help of Bush and Blair's support has been to invade all along.

It is more repeating patterns of 1947 when the British and Zionists hacked out the Balfour agreement - nothing much has changed in terms of manipulations and hidden agendas.

  • 18.
  • At 03:49 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Richard wrote:

The first comment by Richard O'Shea is spot on.

Even if you think Hezbollah is the devil-incarnate, there is no excuse for a one of Bush's favoured democracies to deliberately target civilian populations to such a large scale.

When is Blair going to make it clear to Israel and the USA that the "fight against terrorism" cannot be an excuse for what is happening in Lebanon?

The Israeli excuse is that they told civilians to flee target areas... except that there are no petrol supplies, no intact roads and a catalogue of Israel bombing refugee conveys in the last 4 weeks, so how can they flee?

As the weeks go by, one can't help wondering why zealous politicians don't realise that an industrialised army will NEVER subdue, let alone defeat, a nationalist insurgency? Ref Vietnam, Chechnya, Iraq, Ireland, Basque, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Kurds, Afghanistan x 3 (British Empire, Cold War Russia and now USA), Boer War, etc.....

  • 19.
  • At 04:10 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Dave wrote:

"There are many things that prime ministers would like to do to chief political correspondents, but one form of torture that's open to them is the early morning interview.

The call tends to come late at night - "could you be at Downing Street for 0630 hours tomorrow for a quick chat with the PM?"

Oh my heart bleeds for you.
Still it was worth it, as Mr Blair once again managed to get his warped perspective across unchallenged.Well done.

Oh, and your blog reads like an Enid Blyton story.

  • 20.
  • At 05:57 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Charles E Hardwidge wrote:

I found the interview to be classic Tony Blair. He was aiming for a strong but gentle positive outcome without rubbing anyone’s nose in it. This may appear weak and vague to some but the diplomatic mood music better frames the discussion for a mutually successful outcome.

The problem, here, is I don’t think the media have been terribly good at explaining the ideas and communication. I think, a lot of the reason for that is Britain is, domestically, contrary and bad at communicating. The ignorant and insensitive have too much sway. This isn’t good enough.

As for the Prime Minister retaining control, if the situation took a bad turn the Prime Minister would be accused of taking his eye off the ball, or John Prescott would be pilloried for incompetence. Again, this poor level of maturity isn’t good enough. Some more respect is in order.

If the media can develop the more consensual approach that was shown in the first few questions, I’m sure Politicians will feel more comfortable with opening up and, perhaps, be more willing to acknowledge other perspectives. Like the Middle-East, a little love and learning is helpful.

  • 21.
  • At 07:48 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Robert Kemp wrote:

Stan is about thirty years out of date. The Balfour Declaration was made in 1917.

  • 22.
  • At 10:02 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Chuck Unsworth wrote:

Yes indeed. 'In charge' eh? Does this mean 'responsible for'?

And as noted by many above, what exactly is a Margaret Beckett for, then?

Maybe most of Blair's troubles arise from the fact that he keeps trying to be 'in charge' of bleeding everything. Why does he have a Cabinet? He could save a fair amount of our cash by firing the lot and just running things by himself.

  • 23.
  • At 10:53 AM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • Stewart wrote:

It is quite sickening to watch interviews where supine journalists give Blair the air time for his propoganda.
You might have to work within the constraints of your Bosses' policies, but surely up to a point you must be at odds with your professional ethics - and conscience.
A good journalist will always be held in value by the public, because truth prevails.

  • 24.
  • At 01:18 PM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • Selina Tilbrook wrote:

Blair should be in Downing Street right now NOT in Cliff Richard's holiday home in the Carribean.

And where is Nick Robinson? Is he with the Prime Minister by any chance?

I was just about to respond to the absurdities of Richard O'Shea (#1) when I read the even more ridiculous nonsense of Stanley (#17). Let's get some things straight here...

1. If Israel's use of force was so extreme and indiscriminate, could someone explain how any of Lebanon is still standing? But then I guess it depends on whether you prefer your photos of Beirut doctored or not.

2. Richard's condemnation of Hizballah as extreme (calling for Israel's destruction) and indiscriminate (boasting that it aims for civilians) is notable by its absence.

3. Perhaps Richard might also comment on the UN's abuse of Israel? For example, how after voting it into existence, it has repeatedly stood by whilst other member states seek its obliteration, or the gross double standards that have led to an absurd number of resolutions against it, whilst ignoring the real egregious regimes and acts of genocide in Rwanda, Darfur etc.

4. The views of the British people are reflective of the sources of their information. If people like Richard and Stanley are the denizens of the BBC's opinion pages, it would come as no surprise if the public were hostile to pretty much anything Israel did. I would like to give them more credit than that, but it's funny how any eruption of Middle East violence is immediately followed by a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Britain, showing that the British public have no sense of nuance, and by their actions, see a direct link between Israel and Jews.

5. Stanley is effectively perpetuating a national blood libel against Israel. The idea that they want to eliminate all the Arabs is palpably absurd on so many levels, not least that if they really did want to do this, they are currently the only nuclear power in the Middle East, so they could do this in an afternoon if they were that bothered.

6. It is absolutely astounding to me that the public is not seeking to address this clear and historical abuse of journalism that we are now seeing in the wilful misreporting of the situation in Lebanon, by Reuters, AP and others, who have all been caught doctoring and staging photos. Even Fox and CNN have admitted to self-censorship on reporting Hizballah's activities.

7. After Stanley's ranting, I was at least expecting him to get some facts right, but he disappoints on that too. The Balfour Declaration was actually written in 1917, and had it been enforced, instead of the Jewish side giving massive compromises because ANY state was more important to them than the exact size or borders, Israel would stretch into most neighbouring countries already. Instead, it tends to give up land gained in defensive wars, in the hope of peace. What it gets is more terrorism, more biased UN resolutions, and more attacks from people like Stanley and Richard.

  • 26.
  • At 10:13 PM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • CC wrote:

James Landale is the sexiest man on TV.


  • 27.
  • At 11:53 AM on 11 Aug 2006,
  • Robin wrote:

If you look at the bigger strategic picture for Israel they should wait until the sound of everybody calling for a ceasefire becomes deafening - then bomb the Iranian Nuclear facility - and quickly stop. It would be hard for everybody calling for a ceasefire to suddenly take up arms again.

Is this blog on holiday with Mr Blair?

  • 29.
  • At 09:53 AM on 14 Aug 2006,
  • Laughing Cavalier wrote:

Is this a News blog? The occasional piece every five days is neither news nor a blog.

I see all of the talk about how bad Iserail is in the comments but we are skipping a few things:

Am I the only one who noticed the attack on militants in a hospital that last 4-5 hours in Balek and the attach on Tyre from the sea also lasting several hours at a appartment block in the middle of a housing area.

Both of these examples show why we are seeing high civilian casualties in Lebanon, the Hezbulla is using hospitals and residential areas as rest point at night.

We can talk about War Crimes but when the military units mix with civilians then its justified to attack the area.

  • 31.
  • At 02:40 PM on 16 Aug 2006,
  • Sam wrote:

When are Israel going to be held responsible for their actions? It cannot be disputed that so far during the conflict the Israelies are the ones who have killed the most civillians, the majority of Israelie deaths have been soliders which are legitimate targets.

So why does nobody critisize israel? Even journalists won't do it? Is it becuase perhaps even the BBC are affected by the Jewish lobby?

We went to war with Saddam in gulf war 1 for invading Kuwait even though he actually had a legtimate reason to do it (they were stealing iraqi oil) and yet we won't go to war with Israel when they do this? Its sickening. Even the U.N troops being sent there are effectivly there to 'support' the israelies.

Any U.N peacekeeping force must be just as comfortable shooting Israelie soliders as it is at shooting hezbollah ones.

  • 32.
  • At 09:23 PM on 19 Aug 2006,
  • Rosalind wrote:

But the Israeli reaction was NOT disproportionate. Where is the record of what was happening in the 6 years before all this?

And where is the record of the devastation on the Israeli side? Guess what, fewer deaths, just as much destruction, and why? because they built bunkers. Why didn't Hezbollah? Same as Lenin's thoughts, the more suffering, the more we will win in reaction!

Why on earth does the BBC not report BOTH sides? And it never does (sorry, occasionally on PM, on the radio).

  • 33.
  • At 01:51 PM on 26 Aug 2006,
  • Denver Walker wrote:

The West, the Free World, need to get out, dust off and polish up that 'Big Stick' JFK told us about. Smart, evil men, national leaders, the world over are feeling their oats and are preparing to make bids for world domination and conquest. We don't have to look that far back in history to see this and understand what it means. Now is not the time to dawdle, bicker amongst ourselves or ponder trivialities. Wake up. We don't need to relearn the lessons of history.

‘Aurea Hamo Piscari’

2nd September 2006

In many ways the current situation in the Levant (i.e.. Israel and Lebanon) is inevitable, given the power of the pro-Israeli lobby, in determining American policy in the area. We must live with the real politic and not some model of the world as we would wish it to be.

Egypt, Jordan and many in the Lebanese government have leant this hard lesson that it does not pay to oppose Israel on the battlefield. Instead, it pays to make a deal with Israel and the United States. Every year since 1979 Egypt has received over $2bn per annum and Jordan $500m a year. Even the Lebanese government has had not much of a problem arranging foreign emergency aid since the August battles, already the West has offered some $1bn in emergency aid, with the EU contributing some €150m..

It is time Hamas and Hezbollah learnt this lesson, they should open negations’ immediately to make a financial deal. But this means they will have to transform themselves from a rather disorganized militarily ineffectual terrorist groups, into respectable, democratic and not corrupt political parties, that the West can deal with.

Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland had to learn this lesson, it took courage and leadership, and hopefully Hamas and Hezbollah have the people to take such politically difficult decisions. In making such a deal, it is a win-win situation for the West and the people, Hamas and Hezbollah claim to represent. The poor in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon need the Western investment in economic development necessary to drag these people out of the despair of poverty, which nearly fifty years of conflict has not managed to do.

Respectability brings other benefits, being able to fight the pro-Israeli lobby in the US Congress and the world stage on a less unequal footing. While prosperity has proved a very effective weapon in undermining the influence of extremist terror groups, as both Britain found with the IRA and Spain discovered in its dealings with ETA.

As the saying goes ‘aurea hamo piscari’ (money talks).

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