Blair admits Cabinet is split over Middle East

"I don't doubt that there are people who disagree within the system and I have no doubt there are Cabinet ministers who have doubts about this or that aspect - possibly about the whole aspect of the policy" - Tony Blair

Story in full TONY Blair admitted yesterday that his stance on the escalating crisis in Lebanon had divided the Cabinet.

But he gave an upbeat assessment of the possibility of a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, saying a United Nations' resolution would come "within days" - a claim later challenged by France.

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The Prime Minister will head off on holiday today, brushing off suggestions he should follow Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, and delay his break.

Mr Blair - who is expected to stay in Barbados for three weeks - insisted he would be able to keep in contact with other world leaders by phone as they finalise the UN resolution intended to stop hostilities. In fact, many of the leaders he had spoken to had already gone on holiday, he said.

Amid mounting criticism from Labour back-benchers and his own Cabinet, Mr Blair acknowledged at his monthly Downing Street news conference that there were "doubts" over his handling of the crisis.

"I don't doubt that there are people who disagree within the system and I have no doubt there are Cabinet ministers who have doubts about this or that aspect - possibly about the whole aspect of the policy," he said.

Jack Straw, the Commons leader, has broken ranks by calling Israel's reaction to Hezbollah's kidnapping of its soldiers "disproportionate", while David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, and Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, have also expressed concern about Mr Blair's stance.

However, the Prime Minister dismissed as "complete rubbish" reports that he was at odds with Mrs Beckett over the issue.

Mr Blair said his refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire did not mean he was indifferent to the suffering of the Lebanese people. "On the contrary, I stand in complete solidarity and sympathy with people in the Lebanon - innocent people who have died in Israel as well - in what is a terrible, terrible situation, but my job is to bring it to an end," he said. "You don't bring it to an end unless you have got a plan to do so."

Last night, Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, called on the leaders of Britain, the United States and Europe to pressure Israel to stop its military offensive.

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He told the BBC's Newsnight international leaders, including Mr Blair, had to help secure Israeli assurances it would release Lebanese detainees, withdraw from the disputed border territory known as the Shebaa Farms and provide maps of land mines it planted during its former occupation. In return, his government would arrange for the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah to be returned.

Although critics are using Mr Blair's handling of the Middle East crisis to call for his departure, he made it clear he thought he had a role to play in finding a lasting solution.

His insistence in taking centre stage in the diplomatic wrangling comes despite a rebuke from Mark Malloch Brown, the Briton who is deputy secretary-general of the UN.

He has urged the Prime Minister and George Bush, the US president, to take a back seat, saying: "It's not helpful for it again to appear to be the team that led on Iraq. This cannot be perceived as a US-UK deal with Israel."

Mr Blair has risked the wrath of back-benchers and the public by refusing to ban US planes from transporting weapons via British airports. Ministers, including Mrs Beckett and Douglas Alexander, the Scottish Secretary, have expressed alarm over the use of Prestwick as a refuelling stop for US planes taking weapons to Israel.

But the Prime Minister signalled yesterday that, as long as rules were not broken, Britain would not block future Israel-bound arms flights. "The rules of aviation flight should be adhered to. To change our rules at this point would be a very major step, to single out certain countries and not others," he said.

Asked whether his continued isolation on the situation in Lebanon would make the UK a more dangerous place, he said he did not believe extremists were motivated by Britain's foreign policy. Rather, they used the grievances in Iraq, Palestine and even Kashmir to justify terrorist acts, which were actually driven by a diverging system of values.

Mr Blair denied his previous refusal to call for a ceasefire had given a "green light" to Israel to wage a punitive campaign in southern Lebanon, and condemned a fresh call by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, for the "elimination" of Israel as "deeply unhelpful".

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He also criticised Syria and Iran's support of Hezbollah but insisted "no-one is threatening military action" against them.

His optimistic assessment of a UN ceasefire resolution within days was last night challenged by France. Its foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said French and US diplomats were getting closer to a common resolution, but there was still progress to be made.

While the Americans are calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah and political conditions to be set before the ceasefire is enforced, France wants an immediate halt to the fighting.

During Mr Blair's absence on holiday, John Prescott, his scandal-hit deputy, will be left in charge of the country. On his return, Mr Blair is expected to travel to the Middle East to try to kick-start the peace process.

• Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former ambassador to Moscow, yesterday said Mr Blair had done more damage to UK interests in the Middle East than Sir Anthony Eden, who led Britain into the Suez crisis, and called on him to resign immediately.