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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 July 2006, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Straw comments reflect Cabinet unease
By Mark Sanders
Political correspondent, BBC News

Jack Straw
Mr Straw says Israel must act "proportionately"

The Foreign Office once branded Jack Straw "the chief troublemaker acting with malice aforethought" endangering international relations.

That was the verdict of a senior diplomat on the boy Straw in 1966 - then a student activist, as he tried to disrupt a student visit to Chile with his "childish politicking".

Mr Straw's latest foray into international affairs has been neither condoned nor criticised by Tony Blair's spokesman, who says the PM wants to retain influence as he concentrates on solving the problems in Lebanon.

The former Foreign Secretary's remarks about the conflict do reflect unease within the Cabinet, and across the Labour Party, about the Israeli military operation and how this crisis is being handled.

'Poodle problem'

At the last Cabinet meeting, just before Tony Blair left for America, it's understood concerns were raised by those traditionally loyal to the PM, like the Environment Secretary David Miliband and the chief whip in the Lords, Lord Grocott - who was for many years Tony Blair's parliamentary aide.

Mr Miliband reportedly asked: "Where is this all going to end?"

Red Cross paramedics evacuate an injured Lebanese man in Qana after an Israeli airstrike
There is some unease within the Cabinet at Israel's actions

There is also the wider "poodle problem", the perception among Tony Blair's more strident critics that, in more than one sense, he allows President Bush to take the lead.

On the Labour backbenches the lingering antipathy towards the US over the Iraq War has resurfaced with its stance on the conflict and in particular, the unauthorised use of Prestwick airport as a stop-off for American planes carrying weapons to the Israelis.

Even the current foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, conceded she was "not happy" about that, although the flights will continue if the US fills in the right paperwork.

'Perfectly good discussion'

As for Mrs Beckett's predecessor, Jack Straw acknowledged that Israel had the right to defend itself but it must act "proportionately" to the threat.

His main concern, shared by others, is how Israel's actions are playing in the wider Arab world and how the fragile Lebanese nation could be destabilised.

The PM has been trying to play down the rumbles within the Cabinet - insisting at the last meeting: "There was a perfectly good discussion at the Cabinet actually and it certainly wasn't a divisive discussion at all."

But it's the closest the Cabinet has got to a revolt on international affairs since Robin Cook and Clare Short resigned over the Iraq War.

Ministers aren't quite wielding the pitchforks and the burning torches in Downing Street, but Tony Blair is now feeling the heat at home as well as abroad.

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