FCO stumbles on Hizbollah policy

By Daniella Peled - Foreign Editor, March 5, 2009

There appeared to be confusion in the Foreign Office this week after Middle East minister Bill Rammell announced a ‘new’ policy regarding Hizbollah — despite the policy having been in place since July 2008.

Mr Rammell told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the government had “reconsidered” its position towards the Shia group.

“Our over-riding objective is to pressure Hizbollah to play a more constructive role and move away from violence,” he told the committee on Wednesday.

His statement was described by the committee as “a significant new change of policy towards Hizbollah in Lebanon… whereby the UK is to have contacts with Hizbollah’s political wing”.

However, this policy was first announced in July 2008, following a policy review ordered by Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

After the internecine fighting in Beirut in May 2008, which resulted in the formation of a unity government incorporating Hizbollah, Britain decided to proscribe the whole of Hizbollah’s military structure.

However, the FCO simultaneously chose to clarify its position towards the political wing and the role that the British ambassador to Lebanon, would continue to play. Mr Miliband called Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni at the time to inform her of this policy.

An FCO official said of Mr Rammell’s statement to the committee: “This is a clarification, not a change, of policy.

“The government’s main concern is to support the Lebanese national unity government.

“We will have measured, official contacts with individuals the ambassador considers it appropriate to meet. If she comes across a Hizbollah government member, she will not have to refuse to talk to him.”

Last updated: 12:21pm, March 5 2009