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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 13:12 GMT
Reporter's log: Blair in the Middle East
Travelling with Tony Blair to the Middle East, the BBC's James Landale has the latest on the prime minister's surprise visit.

22 December


Ramallah is a town of contrasts.

As you pass from Israel proper - known here as "green line" Israel - into the West Bank, the service on your mobile phone changes.

"Markaba," pops up the message.

"Greetings. Smell the jasmine and taste the olives.

"Jawwal welcomes you to Palestine."

Rather craftily, this message is sent only to those visitors using a non-Israeli phone.

Very clever.

Inside the West Bank, the contrast with Israel is stark - the poverty, the rubble, the alienation are all immediately apparent.

And yet the Muqata, the late Yasser Arafat's former compound, does show signs of improvement.

The years of siege had left the compound in pieces.

But today we could see new buildings, a lick of paint, and the piles of wrecked cars surrounding the area were long gone.

The tread marks of the Israeli tanks in the tarmac, however, will take longer to remove.


Never mind the roadmap to peace, a street map of Jerusalem would do.

Such is the security in the Holy City, that the police closed off street after street today, turning rush hour into gridlock.

Thus the buses designed to transport the travelling media to Ramallah were left trapped miles from our rendez-vous.

As bemused and dangerously overarmed young soldiers looked on, some of Fleet Street's finest were forced to tramp up and down the hot streets of Jerusalem in hot pursuit of a ride.

Very soon it wasn't just the Israelis and Palestinians who were in need of a peace process.

Conspiracy theories abounded - Number 10 had done it all on purpose to prevent us seeing the prime minister paying his respects at Yasser Arafat's grave in Ramallah, or the programme had been rushed forward because of a row with the Israelis.

None of it true, but there's nothing more inventive than an angry hack.


You don't come to this part of the world unless you talk to both sides, and this morning the prime minister didn't do badly when he met Ariel Sharon.

That said, the real focus now is on the talks going on here between Mr Blair and the Palestinian leadership.


Never have I been asked so often if I'm carrying a weapon. Israeli security is not just thorough, it's also extremely literal. Polite young men and women repeatedly ask me if I am armed, to which I wonder how a terrorist would reply.

"No that's not a gun in my pocket, I'm just pleased to be attending your press conference."

But faced with the intense security at Ariel Sharon's offices, such an answer would not be advised.

My notebooks were examined page by page. My mobile phone was turned on and off several times. My shoes were removed and scrutinised with embarrassing thoroughness.

It made all the security at Downing Street look quite tame. But it was also a salutary reminder that the Israelis have lived with a security threat for longer than most.


The Israelis and the prime minister have been discussing two things this morning. One, from the Israeli side, is the disengagement plan for Gaza.

This is a hugely contentious issue.

And on the British side, the prime minister's idea of some kind of Middle East conference in the New Year.

The key issue is what they're going to discuss, as the Israelis are keen that it doesn't turn into a peace conference.

So it's a softly, softly "lets take it as it comes" kind of approach.

21 December

TEL AVIV :: 2010 GMT

Two things are on the agenda now Mr Blair has arrived in Tel Aviv.

One will be the Israeli plan to disengage from Gaza next year. We know that will kick in around March, it's going to take a long time.

The prime minister wants to talk through some of the detail with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but also with the Palestinians, who want to talk about their response to this: How are they going to deal with the vacuum within Gaza once the Israelis have gone, how is the Palestinian Authority going to reform itself?

Tony Blair in Iraq
The trip is marked by unprecedented security

Also, there is the prime minister's big idea at the moment, which is a London conference on the Middle East in January. There is a lot of detail to be picked over on that proposal.

This is pressure Mr Blair wants to put on himself. There is a huge domestic agenda behind this trip to the Middle East.

In the same way he wants to persuade people that things are getting better in Iraq, that with elections there is hope for the future. He wants to give the impression to people in the West and Britain in particular that the same hope can be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He wants to get that sense of momentum over this idea of a conference, to try to get things going not on the scale of a massive peace conference but just a little way of saying: 'Look, things are moving here too.'"

BASRA :: 1515 GMT
The amount of security surrounding the prime minister on this trip is absolutely phenomenal.

I've been on a fair few of these tours and the security is by far the tightest that I have ever seen.

When we got to Baghdad this morning, we weren't even allowed to report until a few moments before the prime minister stood up to speak at the press conference.

Effectively an almost 24-hour news blackout - that is unheard of.


Flying into Baghdad in a military jet is not for the fainthearted.

The flight master - a sort of airborne Sergeant Major -had warned us that this was what he called an "operational flight".

And that meant the landing and take-off at Baghdad would be "tactical".

In the air we discovered what this meant - a steep dive or climb, weaving in and out of the clouds for safety.

It required a tight grip and steady stomach. For those reporters unable to hold back, there were stout Nato-issue sick bags.

Who can say now that the old alliance has no role to play in the world these days?

20 December

MID-AIR:: 2100 GMT

There is nothing journalists hate more than being caught in a news blackout. They know so much but cannot report a sausage.

It goes against the grain for people whose lives are all about telling stories not keeping secrets.

We content ourselves in engaging with surreal banter with Number 10 officials.

We all know we are going to Baghdad. But they can't say so, and so we don't ask.

Instead as we struggle to get information so we can plan ahead, we ask about the PM's trip to Blackpool.

"If the prime minister were going to Blackpool what time of day might he be going there?

"And when will we be able to file from Blackpool once we've got there?".

And most bizarre of all: "When was the last time a serving British prime minister visited Blackpool?"


So this is how it works when the prime minister goes to the Middle East these days.

We all get on a plane at Heathrow but we do not know where we are going. We think we may be going to Jordan but officially no one will say.

We think we may then be going onto Iraq, but even if we did know that for certain we couldn't report it.

What we have been told is that even when we get to where we are going we will not be able to report that until when we are leaving.

Welcome to the security-conscious twilight zone that is a prime ministerial trip into the heart of the war on terror.


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