PM Urged: Stand Up to Bush and Call for Ceasefire ; MIDDLE EAST CRISIS

Article excerpt

Tony Blair will face fresh pressure over the Middle East crisis today when he arrives in Washington to meet President George Bush. Senior Downing Street aides said the two leaders intended to show the world they were seeking an urgent end to the hostilities in Lebanon, despite the failure of the much vaunted Rome summit on Wednesday to deliver a unified call for a truce.

Israel's Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, added to the pressure yesterday, when he interpreted that indecision as a green light to continue the bloody assault on Lebanon.

"We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world ... to continue the operation," he told reporters.

The Prime Minister's visit takes place as 42 leading figures in politics, diplomacy, academia and the media put their names to a declaration urging Mr Blair to tell the President that Britain "can no longer support the American position on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle-East". Their declaration, printed on the front page of today's Independent, calls on the Prime Minister to "make urgent representations to Israel to end its disproportionate and counter-productive response to Hizbollah's aggression".

After his stop-over in Washington, Mr Blair will fly on to California tonight to attend a conference with the media magnate Rupert Murdoch. An ally of Mr Murdoch, Irwin Stelzer, insisted Mr Blair was not Mr Bush's "poodle", but his "guide dog", particularly over the Middle East.

Downing Street officials said Mr Blair intended to respond to world criticism by showing urgency in seeking an end to the hostilities between Israel and Hizbol-lah. The Prime Minister and the President are planning to commit their governments to a lasting cease-fire by restoring the authority of the elected government against the unilateral action by Hizbollah.

Their joint appearance at the White House is likely to be met with scepticism. The Bush administration said this week it was seeking a "new Middle East", raising fears that the crisis inLebanonwasa proxy war between the US and Iran, Hizbollah's backers.

Senior officials in Downing Street said the Prime Minister supported the US strategy on the Middle East, which was agreed at the Sea Island G8 summit in 2004. Mr Blair is credited with persuading the President to pursue a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. Mr Blair and Mr Bush will emphasise they are working behind the scenes to push for an urgent end to the violence on both sides in the Lebanon.

"Don't in any way underestimate the intensive nature of the diplomacy," said one senior aide to the Prime Minister. "There is a lot going on behind the scenes. We want to show that we are stepping up the search for a process that allows both sides to end the hostilities and there is urgency about that. …