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British PM Fending Off Harsh Critique from Diplomatic Dissenters - 2004-04-27

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is fending off a harsh critique of his policies on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from some leading figures in Britain's foreign affairs establishment.

The hard-hitting criticism has come in an unprecedented open letter to Mr. Blair signed by 52 former diplomats, including men who have served as British ambassadors in Iraq, Israel and the United Nations.

The former officials accuse Mr. Blair of backing President Bush in what they call a "one-sided," "illegal" and "backward" policy to let Israel hold on to some occupied territory in the West Bank while withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.

Regarding Iraq, the letter says there has been no effective plan for a post-Saddam Hussein settlement, and that U-S military tactics are heavy handed. The ex-diplomats say Mr. Blair must use his influence with President Bush to reverse those policies, or the situation will be, in the letter's words, "doomed to failure."

Among the signatories is Marrack Goulding, former undersecretary for political affairs at the United Nations. He says Mr. Blair's recent trip to Washington revealed a reversal of long-standing British policy in the Middle East. "I think all of us were very startled and disappointed when, during the prime minister's visit to Washington, it became clear that he had joined President Bush in, in effect, tearing up the diplomatic framework which had been established starting in 1967 for ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," he says.

Another signatory, former British ambassador to Iraq Harold Walker, says U.S. military tactics in Iraq are not winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. "We've got a sort of a plan of getting to a supposed handover of sovereignty at the end of June. Now surely all efforts therefore must be devoted to getting as many Iraqis as possible to buy in to this process. One obvious way of not getting them to buy in is to bomb the hell out of them in Fallujah. It just is mad," he says.

Prime Minister Blair defended his policies when asked for his reaction to the letter at a London news conference. "Well, I think people are perfectly entitled to criticize, whether it's on Iraq or the Middle East peace process," he said. "On Iraq, it is surely important that we try to help the Iraqi people get to a stable and democratic state, which is what they want. And on the Middle East peace process, I totally understand people's frustration at this. But it's important that when we look at the problem of the Middle East, we accept and recognize that the suffering of the Palestinians is appalling, and we need to change that, but we also accept that there are innocent Israeli civilians being blown up by suicide bombs and terrorist acts."

While Mr. Blair was careful not to criticize the former diplomats, some of his supporters are less charitable. Louise Ellman is a Labor party lawmaker who sits on a pro-Israel caucus in Parliament. "The Foreign Office has long been known as a base for Arabists, but more importantly, I think this does appear to be some kind of organized attack on the prime minister, and it doesn't offer a single constructive way forward," she says.

Another Blair backer, Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien, says it is not as easy to change U.S. policy as the former diplomats imply. "We've got to be realistic. We can influence the United States, but we can't control a superpower. They listen to our quiet diplomacy, but they also have their own policy," he says.

Prime Minister Blair's official spokesman is playing down the controversy. He emphasizes that Mr. Blair shares the former diplomats' goal of a democratic and stable Iraq. And he says Mr. Blair remains committed to what is known as the "road map" to Middle East peace, leading to a Palestinian state and an Israel with security borders.