By Richard Beeston in Beirut and Sam Coates
TONY BLAIR’S peace mission to the Middle East appeared in jeopardy last night after Hezbollah declared that the Prime Minister would not be welcome in Lebanon because of his support for Israel during the war.
A senior member of Hezbollah’s politburo has told The Times that Mr Blair should stay away from the country because he was “up to his ears in the blood of Lebanese women and children”.
British officials are confident that Mr Blair would be welcomed by the government of Fouad Siniora, the Prime Minister. But Hezbollah, which has emerged as the real force in the country, has stepped up its attack on Britain in recent days and Mr Blair would risk an angry reception from its supporters if he visits the country.
Dozens of foreign leaders, including the Emir of Qatar and the French Foreign Minister, have been welcomed to Lebanon since fighting began on July 12. But last month Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, was forced to return to Washington after she was told that she would not be welcome in Beirut because of the Bush Administration’s support for Israel.
Mr Blair, who is expected to return from holiday in the next few days and is planning to spend the Bank Holiday weekend at Chequers preparing his Middle East mission, now faces a serious dilemma. He can travel to Lebanon and risk facing a hostile reception, or he can bypass Lebanon and restrict his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. He would then face the charge that his peace mission has avoided the very country at the centre of the conflict.
Mr Blair has been keen to visit the region since the G8 summit in St Petersburg last month, when he offered to help American peace efforts in a conversation with Mr Bush, in the President was overheard to greet the Prime Minister with “Yo Blair”.
When fighting broke out, Britain followed the US by refusing to call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. The policy infuriated many in the Arab world, particularly the Lebanese Shia Muslim community, which took the brunt of Israel’s bombardment. One diplomatic source admitted that Britain “got off on the wrong foot” by appearing to support Washington and tacitly allowing the Israeli offensive to run its course.
Last week Britain tried to improve relations when Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, made a short visit to Beirut and doubled British aid to £12.5 million.
But any hope that Mr Blair might be able to repair the damage was thrown into doubt after Ghaleb Abu Zeynab, a member of Hezbollah’s politburo, told The Times that the people of Lebanon did not want Mr Blair’s help.
Speaking in an interview at Hezbollah headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut, he said: “Blair is not welcome in Lebanon. I am not speaking on behalf of Hezbollah but all the Lebanese people. They do not want someone who cried crocodile tears to visit their country.
“He is up to his ears in the blood of Lebanese women and children. He is not welcome here. He is a killer. He killed a whole nation, not just individuals,” he said. “What you see around you (the destruction of the southern suburbs) is the result of Blair’s policy. We do not want to see him.”
Downing Street said yesterday that the Prime Minister still hoped to visit the region, but no date had yet been agreed. Officials refused to be drawn on which countries he hoped to visit.
Mr Blair indicated before his holiday that he was keen to revive the “road map” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He said: “It is my intention to visit the region, in particular Israel and Palestine, over the coming period and to consult those there and of course members of the Quartet on the best way forward.”
This is not the first time that Mr Blair has been told to take a back seat in the peace process. Mark Malloch Brown, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, said to the US and Britain that as “the team that led on Iraq” they were poorly placed to take a leading role in diplomatic efforts in Lebanon.