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Mideast Interests Bring Blair to U.S. for Talks


British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Washington today for talks on the Middle East crisis with President Bush. Blair's refusal to call for an immediate cease-fire has sparked another round criticism in Britain that he's too close to President Bush. And there's a new uproar over allegations that U.S. aircraft carrying missiles to Israel stopped to refuel in Scotland, violating British airport procedures.

John Prideaux is the U.K. political correspondent of the Economist magazine. Greetings, John.

Mr. JOHN PRIDEAUX (U.K. Political Correspondent, Economist magazine): Hi.

GONYEA: First it was Tony Blair's support for the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Now, he's backing the Bush administration's stance on Israel's bombing in Lebanon. Does all of this reinforce the perception that he is a servant of the American president?

PRIDEAUX: It seems to so far. His visit to Washington today is being seen as a test of his influence with the U.S. president. Opinion polls that have been conducted for some newspapers during the week show that most people seem to think that Tony Blair is too close to the American foreign policy line too often and doesn't distinguish himself enough. And the conversation that was overheard at the G8 and published in all the newspapers there reinforced this impression that Tony Blair, if you like, plays this sort of younger - this sort of kid brother to George Bush. And it's a role that lots of people in Britain seem to find slightly embarrassing.

GONYEA: That's the unintended off-mic conversation between the president...

PRIDEAUX: Sure, the yo-Blair conversation, as it's known here.

GONYEA: Yo, Blair. Looking specifically at the situation now in the Middle East, does the British public support the U.S. policy, that is no demand for an immediate cease-fire?

PRIDEAUX: The polling evidence suggests not. I think there is sort of three strands in public opinion, if you like. The first is being led by Tony Blair, which says that Britain supports Israel, won't call for a cease-fire because that would somehow be declaring a moral equivalence between the democratic, sovereign State of Israel and the terrorist non state organization of Hezbollah. And then the second group - and I think this is the largest group -which is broadly supportive of Israel but doesn't believe that Israel's current actions in southern Lebanon are going to bring it peaceful, secure borders. And then there's a third group, which is just sort of anti-American, pretty anti-Israel and thinks that Britain is far too, sort of, Atlanticist and should be closer to Europe.

GONYEA: And what about these charges that U.S. aircraft have violated British airport procedures by stopping in Scotland as they deliver missiles to Israel?

Mr. PRIDEAUX: The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, has said she's had quiet word with her opposite number in the U.S. administration about this. It's a big deal in the local area and the Scottish Nationalist Party in particular have sort of latched onto it as a stick to sort of beat and the Labor government in Westminster with. But I don't think, you know - any talks of sort of government splits on this I think are overplayed.

GONYEA: John Prideaux is political correspondent for Britain's Economist magazine. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. PRIDEAUX: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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