Ian Gilmour

To go to Beirut just when Shimon Peres is doing his uniquely energetic electioneering both there and in southern Lebanon does not seem well-timed. However, a friend in Beirut says it’s quiet there this morning and the weather is good. As the four of us are heading not for the beaches but for the refugee camps on behalf of Medical Aid for Palestinians, the weather is not decisive. We stick to our plans and I telephone the Foreign Office to discover if I can defend British policy on Lebanon, assuming we have one, and if so how. The Foreign Office man tells me that it is all Hizballah’s fault because they are against ‘the peace process’. I murmur that the attacks on civilians were unquestionably started by the Israelis and ask what the Government feels about the creation of yet more hundreds of thousands of refugees. The FO chap thinks that none of that is really relevant because the Hizballah are against the ‘peace process’, adding, however, that we are ‘now moving back to the middle’. He means that we are moving way from Michael Portillo’s pompously ignorant remarks a few days ago when he gave his Israeli hosts carte blanche to do what they liked in Lebanon. I ask with a touch of acrimony why we ever left ‘the middle’ and ring off.

On the plane, I read Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, which first appeared in 1937. Very funny in places, and Auden’s verse ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is a triumph, though not in the same league as the great man himself; surprisingly, Auden uses a seven-line stanza instead of the eight of Don Juan. Auden and MacNeice’s ‘Last Will and Testament’ which ends the book contains the lines:

                    and for our intelligent island pray
That to her virtuous beauties by all poets sung
She add at last an honest foreign policy.

The captain comes down the aisle to tell us that the Israelis have just killed 95 people at Qana, mostly women and children. As that means Peres has now reached his century of dead civilians, we think he will declare the innings closed. And even if he doesn’t, Clinton, Major and Co will surely condemn the atrocity and force him to stop.

The weather in Beirut is not good (and I seem to have been stricken by Lebanese food before I have touched it), but in the last two years there has been an impressive amount of rebuilding. We soon discover that the British Government has one remarkable achievement to its credit: it has made itself even more unpopular in Lebanon than in Britain. This is largely Portillo’s doing. Yesterday’s optimism turns out to have been fatuous, the product of euphoria induced by a couple of drinks on the plane. The Israeli bombardment goes on, though not in Beirut. Peres has seen too many massacres to be much influenced by another one. And, incredibly, Malcolm Rifkind does not condemn the Israeli massacre but tells the BBC that this ‘is what happens in a conflict of this kind’. One expects that sort of thing from Portillo, who probably thinks Lebanon is French and something to do with the European Union and therefore to be opposed. Rifkind should know better. Probably he does. Before we left London I had the impression that, with Rifkind away in Bolivia or somewhere, our attitude was being laid down not by the Foreign Office but by 10 Downing Street, which has of course made a hash of it. Probably at least part of the trouble comes from the need to raise party funds for the general election.

Paying attention to the colour of the traffic lights is optional in Beirut, which is disconcerting until you get used to it. An additional hazard is that the local drivers are continually on their portable telephones while threading their way through their similarly telephoning compatriots. As the Israelis have cut the road to Sidon and Tyre to prevent medicine and food reaching the beleaguered south and are indiscriminately shelling all civilian cars, we decide to go to Tripoli in the north. Because of my length I am usually allotted the comfortable position in the front seat. This morning I insist on giving it up to Will Camp. After a particularly hair-raising hour and a half’s drive we get out to stretch our legs. Rather pale, Will ascribes my action not to guilt at always hogging the best place but to frightened prudence. He could be right.

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