Israel champion Burt is Middle East minister


The appointment of Alistair Burt as Middle East Minister in the Foreign Office sends as clear a message as possible about the direction of the new government in the region. Mr Burt is listed as an officer in the parliamentary group of Conservative Friends of Israel and has been passionate in campaigning for visiting rights to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas for the past four years.

As Under-Secretary of State, he is not as senior as his predecessor in the post, Ivan Lewis, who was a Minister of State. But this should not necessarily be seen as a downgrading of priorities. David Lidington, who held the Middle East brief in opposition, has been appointed as Minister of State at the FCO. He, like Mr Burt, has been a consistent champion of Israel's cause.

Mr Burt, 54, is a serious figure who held several ministerial posts in the last Tory government. In his new post he will work closely with Matthew Gould, the UK's first Jewish envoy to Israel, who takes up his post later this year. The appointment of Mr Burt and Mr Lidington will be seen as an attempt to distance the Foreign Office from its Arabist, "Camel Corps" reputation.

Mr Burt will have to work hard within the Arab world to build credibility and prove that he is an honest broker.

He will not be helped by his commitment to the Evangelical Christian movement. He will also have to gain trust from the British Muslim community (an increasingly important consideration for a Foreign Office minister), which will view him with suspicion.

Mr Burt made his first tentative and highly diplomatic steps this week when he emphasised that Iran should work through the International Atomic Energy Agency under a new agreement to ship uranium abroad for enrichment. Until concrete arrangements had been made, he said the work on a new UN sanction resolution against Iran should continue.

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