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Tony Blair’s Middle East Policy Might Be Final Nail in His Political Coffin

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Tony Blair’s future as British prime minister looks increasingly doomed — and it may have been the Middle East that sealed his fate. Media outlets have described Blair’s support for Israel and his reticence to press for an earlier cease-fire in Israel’s war with Hezbollah as the straws that broke the camel’s back for the beleaguered Blair, who has said he’ll quit within a year.

Asked this week if he believed his strong support for Israel during the war had hurt his popularity, Blair told an interviewer, “It was not, probably, a very popular decision in the U.K.”

But not everyone agrees that Blair’s Israel policy harmed his career.

“I don’t think issues or decisions that have been made within the Labor Party have anything to do with foreign policy at all,” Dan Fox, president of Labor Friends of Israel, told JTA. “It was a leadership issue. None of the people that resigned mentioned the Middle East in their letter of resignation.”

Escaping the media onslaught at home, Blair traveled to the relative quiet of the Middle East this week to try to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In his first stop Sunday, he met with Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and, later, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Both Olmert and Abbas said they were ready to talk to one another without preconditions, which was considered a success for Blair.

On Monday, Blair received a far chillier reception when he made the first visit to Lebanon by a British prime minister, meeting with Lebanon’s prime minister, Fouad Siniora.

With protests raging outside, Blair defended his refusal to press for a quick cease-fire. Blair had argued that a resolution ending the war would hold only if it addressed the underlying issues, even if that took more time.

Blair said the key to peace in the region is a “meaningful, just and lasting resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” and vowed to dedicate his remaining days in office to the cause.

Given Blair’s apparent dedication to peace in the Middle East, and his longstanding image as a friend of Israel, should Britain’s Jewish community have done more to help salvage his image and career over the past two months?

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the central address for Britain’s Jewish community, has made no official statements about Blair’s policies toward Israel.

After details of the government’s policy on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict were explained to board representatives during a closed briefing in mid-August, the group did issue a press release “welcoming the government’s efforts, through the auspices of the U.N. and other diplomatic channels, to broker a lasting peace, and the recognition that this can only come about through the disarmament of Hezbollah.”

But the statement made no specific mention of Blair, who at the time was under immense international pressure to call for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon.

Jon Benjamin, the board’s chief executive, told JTA that the group “acknowledges the support shown for Israelis from various quarters, including but not limited to politicians of different parties.”

The Jewish community, Board of Deputies and chief rabbi will probably make statements thanking Blair for his support, Colin Shindler, a teacher of Israeli and modern Jewish studies at London’s School for Oriental and African Studies, told JTA.

“But it won’t mean anything in terms of changing his image,” Shindler said.

“The Jewish community will always be grateful to Blair for his support for Israel” but is “always mindful of getting involved in domestic politics publicly,” Shindler continued. “They have probably showed their support for Blair privately.”

Even with Blair on the way out, the government’s Mideast policy isn’t expected to change much.

“All the people who are in the running to succeed him have been highly engaged in Middle East affairs within the Labor Party already,” Labor Friends of Israel’s Fox told JTA. “The overall strategy in maintaining a fair stance toward the peace process will continue.”

And what if Chancellor Gordon Brown takes the helm, as many predict?

“Politically, he may wish to show that he’s different from Blair and adopt a policy closer to the Palestinians, not because he believes in it but because he wants to be different from Tony Blair,” Shindler told JTA.

And what if someone else gets the top job? Jessica Shepherd, coordinator of the Jewish Journalists Society in London, told JTA that “it’s too soon to say if anything might change.”

Regardless, Blair may find life far more pleasant out of office than in it. On Tuesday, addressing delegates at the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella group for trade unions in the United Kingdom that represents about 7.5 million workers, a visibly flustered Blair was heckled and jeered by disgruntled delegates, who eventually walked out.

“Bring the troops home” and “What about Israel?” delegates shouted at Blair when he spoke of opposing terrorism everywhere.

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