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UK PM Briefing 18 June - Middle East & Mrs Blair

Tuesday 18 June afternoon lobby briefing
[18 June 2002]
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman

MIDDLE EAST/MRS BLAIR

In answer to questions, the PMOS said that during his doorstep this afternoon with Prime Minister Aznar of Spain, the Prime Minister had been asked about the comments Mrs Blair had made in relation to suicide bombers this morning. He had said, "First of all I hope that no-one mis-describes her sentiments, or mine or anyone else's. Everybody in this situation feels nothing but the deepest sympathy for the people who have lost their lives in the latest terrorist attack. Terrorism offers absolutely no future, no way out of that process whatsoever. But of course it is true that we need to make sure that there is hope for the future and the hope lies in the political process taking the place of the extremists, the terrorists and the suicide bombers. And I am sure that is what Cherie was saying, as everyone who has looked at this problem knows is the case".

Asked if it was appropriate for the Prime Minister's wife to attend an event organised by a charity which was run along political lines, the PMOS said that the charity was involved in raising funds to provide medicines for Palestinian women and children. It was therefore not accurate to describe it as 'political'. He said it was important to look at the context in which Mrs Blair had made her comments. She had not said that the Palestinian people had no choice. Nor had she said they had no hope, as had been reflected in one paragraph running on the newswires earlier.

Rather, she had said they didn't feel they had hope. He said that as he understood it, Queen Rania of Jordan had invited Mrs Blair to the charity event. This had been a long-standing invitation, going back some years. The Queen of Jordan had commented that progress would not be made whilst people blew themselves up. A political solution was needed which addressed the concerns of both sides and gave security to Israel. Mrs Blair had said that she agreed with the Queen's remarks and had then made the point that a political process was needed. As the Prime Minister had said this afternoon, there was absolutely no question that Mrs Blair did not condemn what had happened today in Jerusalem in the strongest terms.

Asked if Mrs Blair regreted any offence that had been caused, the PMOS repeated that it was important to look at the context in which she had spoken. Pressed as to whether Mrs Blair regreted her remark, the PMOS said he hadn't spoken to her so far and was therefore unable to speak on her behalf. Should she wish to put out a statement this evening, it would be a decision for her.

Questioned as to why Mrs Blair had not taken the opportunity directly to condemn the suicide attack in Jerusalem today, the PMOS said that Mrs Blair had made one comment in the context of a statement made by Queen Rania at a charity event, which underlined the need for a political process to move things forward in the Middle East.

The Prime Minister himself had said broadly the same things in the past. Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister regreted Mrs Blair comment, the PMOS replied that the Prime Minister had said what he had said. He believed that people should not mis-describe Mrs Blair's sentiments. She obviously felt the deepest sympathy for those who had been killed today.

Put to him that Mrs Blair's words spoke for themselves and did not reflect the Prime Minister's strong condemnation of today's attack, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had underlined for the avoidance of doubt in his doorstep this afternoon that obviously Mrs Blair had the deepest sympathy for those who had died today.

Put to him that Mrs Blair had in fact said that she understood the sentiments of those doing the killing, the PMOS said that shorthanding what Mrs Blair had said was unhelpful. Queen Rania had stated that progress would not be made whilst people blew themselves up. Mrs Blair had agreed and had added that a political process was needed.

Put to him that it wasn't Queen Rania who had expressed support for suicide bombers, the PMOS underlined that Mrs Blair had not said that she supported suicide bombings. Quite the contrary. She had said, "As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up, you are never going to make progress". Thus Mrs Blair had been emphasising the need for a political process which would give people hope. There was a huge difference between expressing that sentiment and taking it a stage further - as some were trying to do - by saying that she was supporting and condoning what had happened in Jerusalem today. That was clearly nonsense, and journalists knew it.

Asked how his defence of the Prime Minister's wife would square with the question which had been put to Queen Rania and Mrs Blair today - namely, why would people support a Palestinian charity on a day when a suicide attack had taken place, the PMOS said no one was pretending that there weren't deep-rooted problems in the Middle East. In our view, the way to end the cycle of violence was through a political process which gave hope to both sides - so that the Israelis could live safe and secure within their own boundaries and the Palestinians were able to live in their own state. Today's event was clearly a charity event to raise funds for medicines.

Put to him that understanding an issue was not necessarily the same thing as approving of it, the PMOS said he would suggest that journalists actually looked at what Mrs Blair had said and the context in which she had said it. Suggesting that she was in some way condoning what had happened in Jerusalem today was some journalistic leap and was simply wrong as they knew.

Asked if he would agree that Mrs Blair's words appeared to more empathetic towards the Palestinian side given she had only mentioned suicide bombers rather than the innocent people they blew up, the PMOS repeated that Mrs Blair had agreed with what the Queen of Jordan had said regarding the need for Israeli security and the fact that there could be no hope while people were killing others as well as themselves. For the avoidance of any doubt should there be any, the Prime Minister had clarified the position on the record. Jack Straw had also put out a statement this morning reflecting the views of the Government where he had called what had happen in Jerusalem 'an act of evil beyond words' and a 'despicable attack'. The Government's view on this issue was very clear.

Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister shared the view expressed by Mrs Blair today, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had spoken on many occasions about the importance of giving hope to both sides and that the only way to resolve the difficulties was through a political process which addressed the concerns of both sides. Queen Rania's comments were therefore important in this context because she had talked about the need for a political solution to address that equation. Mrs Blair had fully agreed with them before saying what she had said.

Asked whether the Prime Minister would be happy for Mrs Blair's comment to stand, the PMOS said the Prime Minister's point was that people should not take the one remark that was made and elide that into the claim that Mrs Blair condoned or approved of what had happened today in Jerusalem. Did they really think that was the case?

Asked to explain why Mrs Blair had commented in the first place given the sensitive situation in the Middle East, the PMOS said that Mrs Blair had been attending a charity event at the invitation of the Queen of Jordan. It so happened that the event had taken place today. He pointed out that his understanding was that the views of the Jordanian Government were almost entirely the same as those of the British Government in terms of condemning suicide bombings, which could only put back the political process.

Pressed further, the PMOS said that Mrs Blair had attended a charity event, not a political event. He repeated that its aim had been to raise funds to provide medicines for Palestinian people. Put to him that the event would be viewed by some quarters, particularly those in Israel, as a political campaign and that the very fact of Mrs Blair's attendance might be considered a political act, the PMOS said that for the avoidance of any doubt he would underline again that it was not a political charity. As he had already emphasised, the Government's position on suicide bombings was crystal clear and had been consistent for months and months.

Asked whether Mrs Blair had been given 'carte blanche' to speak her mind on political issues, the PMOS reiterated the point that Mrs Blair had attended a charity event. The British Government's response to the atrocity in Jerusalem today had come from the Foreign Secretary. In order to underline the strength of feeling within the Government, the Prime Minister had repeated those sentiments during his doorstep this afternoon with Prime Minister Aznar.

Put to him that had Mrs Blair said on the day of the Enniskillen or Omagh bombings that young men in West Belfast felt they had no hope but to plant bombs, people would have been outraged by her comments and why it was that she did not appear to understand or regret the offence she had caused today, the PMOS repeated that it was important to understand the context in which she had spoken and recognise that the view of the British Government had been expressed by Jack Straw and the Prime Minister.

Asked if that meant that Downing Street did not regret any offence that had been caused, the PMOS said if any offence had been caused by the interpretation of her comments, then obviously that was something to be regreted. Pressed repeatedly as to whether Downing Street regreted any offence which had been caused, the PMOS said clearly yes, if that was the case from interpretations of her comments, but there was no need for people to take offence if they looked at the context in which Mrs Blair had spoken, what she had said and the strong condemnation of the atrocity today by the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary with which Mrs Blair fully associated herself.

Asked about the nationality of Queen Rania of Jordan, the PMOS said he did not know. Asked how he would characterise the Jordanian Government's attitude toward suicide attacks, the PMOS said that as he understood it, they had always condemned them and constantly expressed their desire to see political progress being made, as he had just said. He added, however, that he did not speak for them and advised journalists to talk to the Embassy.

Put to him that his exhortation to put what Mrs Blair had said into context invited the claim that Mrs Blair, a highly-skilled QC, had attended a Palestinian charity event at the request of the Palestinian-born wife of the King of Jordan and would obviously have understood the implications of her choice of words, the PMOS said we had been round the course on this issue many times now. He repeated that the purpose of the charity was to raise funds for medicines for Palestinian women and children. Both Queen Rania and Mrs Blair had been underlining the importance of a political process to resolve the deep-rooted problems in the Middle East.

Later, a spokeswoman for Mrs Blair issued a statement which said: "If any offence has been taken from the interpretation of her comments then Mrs Blair is obviously sorry. None was intended and it goes without saying that she condemns the atrocity today in the strongest possible terms along with all right minded people. She did not and nor would she ever condone suicide bombers or say they had no choice.

"She fully agrees with the statement issued by Queen Rania at the event that 'the killing of innocent civilians is not acceptable, irrespective of perpetrator or victim. Killings will not lead to political solutions'. She also agreed with Queen Rania's statement that there needs to be hope for both peoples that there will be a political process to resolve their differences."

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