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Hague tells ‘belligerent’ Israelis to soften line

The Middle East peace process is in danger of becoming a casualty of the revolutionary tidal wave sweeping the Arab world, and Israel is putting itself at risk by failing to compromise, William Hague told The Times yesterday.

Speaking on an emergency peace mission covering five countries in three days, the Foreign Secretary issued a blunt instruction to Israel to tone down the belligerent language used by Binyamin Netanyahu, its Prime Minister, since the uprising and protests, which have spread from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond.

The situation in Egypt intensified yesterday, with hundreds of thousands of protesters again pouring into Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand that President Mubarak stand down now rather than wait until elections in September.

In his interview with The Times, Mr Hague gave voice to differences with the White House, demanding that the Obama Administration give a timetable for bringing the peace process back on track and urging an agreement based on 1967 borders.

Flying from Tunis to Amman, the Jordanian capital, Mr Hague made clear that the sharply deteriorating political situation in the Middle East was a key focus for his trip. “Amidst the opportunity for countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is a legitimate fear that the Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one side, and will be a casualty of uncertainty in the region,” he said.

Hinting at increasingly fractious relations between Britain and Israel, he added: “Part of the fear is that uncertainty and change will complicate the process still further. That means there is a real urgency for the Israelis and the United States. Recent events mean this is an even more urgent priority and that’s a case we are putting to the Israeli Government and in Washington.”

Mr Hague responded to increasingly militaristic pronouncements by Mr Netanyahu, who has been urging his nation to prepare for “any outcome” and vowing to “reinforce the might of the state of Israel”. The Foreign Secretary said: “This should not be a time for belligerent language. It’s a time to inject greater urgency into the Middle East peace process.”

The intervention by Mr Hague is likely to dismay some on the Conservative benches in Westminster who have supported Israel. However, party sources pointed out that the number of pro-Israeli hawks on the Tory side had declined after the 2006 war against Lebanon.

His words also underscores the British foreign policy dilemma towards the “freedom movements” across the Arab world; welcoming the challenge or overthrow of authoritarian regimes, yet cautious about the uncertainty of the governments that will replace them. Mr Hague praised the “inspiring” changes made since the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, but faced repeated questions over why Britain was disowning a regime that it had supported for 23 years.

The Foreign Secretary intends to deliver a nuanced message to Arab leaders, emphasising that Britain will speak up for political and economic freedom, but explicitly acknowledging that in different countries “change will take time according to their cultures”.

British officials do believe, however, that the next Egyptian government will almost certainly be closer to Hamas than the Mubarak regime.

The build-up of arms in Lebanon by Hezbollah, which has ties to Iran, adds to the urgency. “The scale of any military conflict that may happen between Israel and Hezbollah is growing, because of the growth of armaments in the area,” Mr Hague said. He made clear that he regarded the Israeli attitude to settlements as “disappointing”, adding: “Within a few years peace may become impossible.”

Earlier, the Foreign Secretary arrived in Tunisia, becoming the first foreign minister to visit since the revolution last month, and lent support to the transitional Government, led by Rachid Ghannouchi. Britain is offering a £5 million Arab Partnership Fund —“seed money” for economic, social and political projects.

Officials are concerned, however, that early progress may not yet lead to a stable, genuine democracy. The Foreign Secretary said that the European Union needed to rise to the challenge to influence events for the good. “If the EU doesn’t do that, people in this region would conclude that Europe is not able to construct an effective response in its own neighbourhood,” he said.

He was challenged by young revolutionaries over Britain’s years of support for the Ben Ali regime. Inès Chermiti, 25, a student in Tunis, twice asked the Foreign Secretary to explain why the deposed dictator had been given support.

“Your Government worked with Ben Ali for 23 years. What was your position then?” she said, before asking: “Do you support the people?”

Mr Hague said that commercial interests — particularly BP’s gas fields — had been, and would continue to be, “very important” to Britain.

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