Unity on Lebanon eroding


WASHINGTON, July 18 (JTA) � Coming out of the G-8 summit, the international community stood as one behind Israel�s right to defend itself against Hezbollah aggression. How long that unity lasts depends on how long Hezbollah is able to keep �doing this shit,� in President Bush�s unwittingly recorded and already legendary phrase.

Just days after hard-edged U.S. diplomacy pulled Russia, Germany, France, Britain, Japan, Canada and Italy into a statement that backed Israel�s �right to defend itself,� cracks are emerging in the solidarity.

The United States, Germany and Canada want to give Israel some leeway to demolish Hezbollah�s military capabilities before stepping in to pick up the pieces and introduce mechanisms that would prevent the Iranian-backed terrorist group from launching more attacks over Israel�s northern border.

Israeli officials say that could take weeks � but Britain, France Italy and Russia already are sending signals that they want this crisis solved sooner rather than later.

The differences were encapsulated in lunchtime chatter Monday between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bush, picked up by a microphone that neither leader realized was open.

The talk was friendly but the differences were profound. Bush was annoyed with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had just forcefully demanded a cease-fire before any other steps were taken.

�I don�t like the sequence of it,� Bush said. �His attitude is basically cease-fire and everything else happens.�

Bush backs Israel�s preferred sequence: Israel will end its bombardment of Hezbollah targets when the terrorist group returns two soldiers abducted July 12, ceases rocket attacks and removes its armed presence from Israel�s northern border.

Blair argued that now was not the time for the international community to hold back.

�The thing that�s really difficult is we can�t stop this unless you get this international presence agreed,� he said.

Blair offered to visit the region himself to prepare the ground for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

�If she goes out, she�s got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can just go out and talk,� he said.

Bush stressed that the issue is Hezbollah terrorism, which he believes is backed by Syria.

�What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it�s over,� Bush said. �I felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with� Syrian President Bashar �Assad and make something happen. We�re not blaming Israel. We�re not blaming the Lebanese government.�

Questions of timing aside, there was an emerging consensus over the longer-term role for the international community. A European diplomat described for JTA a more robust role in monitoring, one that could include troops on the ground that would replace the current U.N. peacekeepers there, who have been ineffective.

French President Jacques Chirac said it was time for the international community to accept that it �will probably require some means of coercion� to maintain quiet on the Israel-Lebanon border.

The White House was not averse to the idea.

�Somehow you�re going to have to provide stability in southern Lebanon,� White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday. �Whether it�s an international stabilization force, whether it is the Lebanese armed forces, all those things are under discussion.�

Differences over the sequence of a cease-fire continued to dog efforts at resolution, however. Annan was unapologetic Tuesday about his demand for a cease-fire before any talks.

�I did indeed demand an end to the hostilities,� Annan said Tuesday after meeting in Brussels with Javier Solana, the E.U. foreign policy chief, who had just returned from a fact-finding mission in the region.

�One must really stop them!� said Annan, who was speaking in French.

That flips the sequence outlined in the Group of Eight summit statement, released late Sunday in St. Petersburg, Russia.

�These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict. The extremists must immediately halt their attacks,� the statement said.

�It is also critical that Israel, while exercising the right to defend itself, be mindful of the strategic and humanitarian consequences of its actions. We call upon Israel to exercise utmost restraint, seeking to avoid casualties among innocent civilians and damage to civilian infrastructure and to refrain from acts that would destabilize the Lebanese government.�

There was no mistaking the belief that the responsibility for the crisis lies with Hezbollah. Within hours, however, the French appeared to be rushing for a resolution, as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin headed for Beirut on Monday show �solidarity� with the Lebanese people.

�France is fully committed to obtaining a cease-fire as soon as possible and putting an end to the crisis,� he said upon arrival in Beirut.

�The United States shares some of Israel�s objectives in trying to neutralize Hezbollah�s strategic threat, which the Europeans don�t necessarily share,� said Haim Malka, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. �The urgency for the Bush administration of a cease-fire is somewhat less than the Europeans.�

The Bush administration was holding its ground. After a series of leaks Monday suggesting that Rice would head right from St. Petersburg to the Middle East, word came that she would not leave before the middle of next week.

That made sense, said Mara Rudman, a National Security Council staffer under President Clinton who now works at the Center for American Progress in Washington. It was better for the United States to see what players like de Villepin and the U.N. team can come up with before expending its considerable capital, she said.

�If you�re the United States, you have to make sure that when you go, you can produce results,� Rudman said.

Rice already had made it clear in St. Petersburg that the United States expected to turn the violent crisis initiated by Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the Gaza Strip into an opportunity for peace.

�If violence ends on the basis of Hezbollah or Hamas continuing to hold in their hands the capabilities anytime they wish to start launching rockets again into Israel,� Rice told reporters Sunday, �we will have achieved very, very little.�

Her words were echoed in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert�s speech to the Knesset the next day.

�We can all see how the majority of the international community supports our battle against the terror organizations and our efforts to remove this threat of the Middle East,� he said. �We intend to do this. We will continue to operate in full force until we achieve this.�

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