Blair Upbeat Despite Cool Arab Reaction To Coalition

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Fresh from meetings with leaders in Amman, Riyadh and Damascus, visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in Jerusalem Thursday that Arab regimes in the region have a certain "understanding" about the need for the Western military campaign against the ruling Taliban militia in Afghanistan.

Although nearly every country in the world expressed its condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and slammed into the Pentagon, Arab governments have not offered their support for the U.S.-led military strikes.

Blair, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem and later with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Gaza, wound up a two-day tour of Middle Eastern countries Thursday aimed at galvanizing Arab support for the Western campaign against terror.

However, he did not find the degree of support the West had hoped for along the way. On his first stop, Syrian leader Bashar Assad criticized the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan and refused to denounce Palestinian militant groups he hosts in Damascus as well as the Lebanese-based Hizballah.

Saudi Arabia, America's staunchest ally in the Persian Gulf, has refused to allow U.S. planes to take off from its turf and wants the bombing in Afghanistan to stop as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, Blair tried to be upbeat about the reaction of Arab states to the actions of the anti-terror alliance, saying there had been "total condemnation" among most Arab states of the terror attacks against the U.S.

"There is an understanding of why it is necessary for us to take action," he told a joint press conference after his meeting with Sharon. He did not say, however, that there was Arab support for the bombing campaign against the Taliban.

In Jerusalem and Gaza, Blair's mission was to prevent a deterioration of the situation and try to set Israel and the Palestinians back on the road toward a ceasefire.

Just hours before he arrived, Yasser Atsidah and Fahmi Abu Isha were killed in an Israeli helicopter attack, saying that in doing so it had foiled "a large scale suicide bombing." Isha was reportedly ready to transport Atsidah, who was on the way to carry out a kamikaze attack.

Blair condemned the idea of targeted killings and urged both sides to work toward calming the situation, but he expressed some understanding for the Israeli position.

"We want restraint on all sides here and the only way we're going to get a peace process back on track is if there is an end to violence of all kinds and an end to bloodshed," he said in Jerusalem.

"I understand the pressures that Prime Minister Sharon is under, the pressure that he feels and the position of the Israeli people who have seen their citizens killed by terrorist acts," Blair said.

He mentioned, for example, the suicide bombings at a Tel Aviv disco in June in which 21 young people were killed and 130 injured, the August suicide attack at a Jerusalem restaurant, which left 15 dead and 120 wounded, and a shooting attack in Hadera on Sunday, which claimed the lives of four women.

"It is important that any measures that are taken in relation to security are measured and proper in accordance with international law," Blair said.

"But let us be absolutely clear, we are never going to get back into a process again unless the violence and killing everywhere stops," he added.

Calling the targeted killings an act of "self-defense," Sharon said Israel was committed to peace and was ready to make "painful compromises" but would never compromise on its security or the existence of the State of Israel.

While Sharon said he would form a team of negotiators including himself and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for talks with the Palestinians, he repeated his position that Israel would not return to the negotiating table until there is complete quiet.

"Israel of course has the right for self-defense," Sharon said. "Just assume for one minute that those terrorists that were attacked this morning ... [had committed] a most terrible act of terror.

"What will bring negotiations earlier, what will bring peace earlier, that they will kill another 20 or 40 or 50 Israeli citizens or if they would be stopped on the way there?" he asked.

Besides, Sharon said, Arafat had been given the names of the terrorists and refused to arrest them.

In Gaza, Arafat said his forces had tried to arrest wanted men but were unable to do so. Instead, he said, his forces had arrested two brothers who admitted giving intelligence information to Israel.

Furthermore, Arafat said he is committed to the peace process.