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WARFARE IN LEBANON

Bush, Peers Worlds Apart on Approach to the Crisis

July 15, 2006|James Gerstenzang and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Bush split sharply from other world leaders Friday over the deepening crisis in the Middle East, declining a request from Lebanon's prime minister to pressure Israel to halt its attacks.

While Israeli warplanes struck deeper into Lebanon, Bush talked by telephone with Middle Eastern leaders, including Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister.

European leaders sharply criticized Israel's bombardment of its northern neighbor. French President Jacques Chirac condemned the offensive as "totally disproportionate" and said it appeared that Israel "wished to destroy Lebanon."

Other criticism came from Spain, Norway, Russia and China. The Vatican said it "deplores the attack on Lebanon."

The differing approaches threatened to divide the summit here of the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations. The Bush administration has been hoping the gathering will show world leaders forming a united front against Iran's nuclear program.

Attendees are expected this weekend to discuss the violence that erupted in the Middle East this week and try to fashion a joint statement laying out a common approach, U.S. aides said.

Lebanese and U.S. officials offered differing accounts of Bush's call to Siniora.

The office of the Lebanese leader said in a statement that Bush had promised to urge Israel "to limit damage to Lebanon ... and to spare civilians and innocent people from harm."

But Bush aides said the president declined to push for a halt to Israeli attacks because he believes the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is entitled to defend itself in a crisis that was triggered by Hezbollah militants. The Islamic militia on Wednesday sent fighters in southern Lebanon across the border into Israel and captured two soldiers.

Bush "believes the Israelis have the right to protect themselves and that in doing so they should limit as much as possible so-called collateral damage, not only to facilities but also to human lives," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said in Russia.

At the same time, Snow said, "the president is not going to make military decisions for Israel."

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who had dinner with Bush in St. Petersburg after the American leader arrived from Germany, said earlier Friday that "all sides should immediately end their military actions" as a "starting point for resolving all other problems," the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

In comments clearly directed at Israel, Putin said, "It is absolutely obvious that any large-scale use of force, even in response to provocative acts, is as unacceptable as taking people hostage as a method to sort out some issues, including political ones."

Analysts said that although the governments' differing responses were consistent with their long-standing positions on the Middle East, they would inevitably pose new complications at the meeting.

Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a National Security Council aide under President Clinton, said the Mideast crisis would "to some extent crowd out other issues" the group had planned to discuss.

Tensions among the leaders will "make it difficult to maintain solidarity on Iran, North Korea and energy security," he said.

On Thursday, in keeping with previous actions at the United Nations, the U.S. came to the aid of Israel by vetoing a resolution proposed by Qatar to condemn the advance into Lebanon.

Bush's approach on security issues in the Mideast has been to give Israel full latitude while urging its leaders to use enough restraint to avoid harming civilians.

U.S. officials said they were supporting a joint effort of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as an initiative by a U.N. team, to find a solution to the crisis. U.S. law bars American officials from dealing directly with terrorist groups, so they must rely on others.

Snow said the administration viewed the U.N. effort as an important means of putting pressure on Hezbollah.

Bush's calls to the Middle East leaders, and Snow's disclosure of them, suggested a public effort by the White House to exert whatever regional influence it can to keep the crisis from escalating.

At a news conference Thursday in Germany, Bush spoke largely off the cuff, urging Israel not to go so far in attacking Hezbollah that Siniora's struggling government would be weakened.

"We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon," Bush said.

But he also insisted, as he has a number of times recently, that Israel had the right to protect itself.

By the end of the day, the administration decided to place additional weight on its message of restraint.

"It is extremely important that Israel exercise restraint in its activities of self-defense," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a hasty, late-night meeting with reporters, also attended by Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security advisor. She added that such a message had been sent privately through diplomatic channels.

In New York on Friday, several U.N. ambassadors called for an end to the violence and condemned Israel's military action.

"We denounce the armed aggression of Lebanon by Israel," said Wang Guangya, China's ambassador.

British officials indicated agreement with the U.S. stance, but Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said Israel "must exercise restraint and ensure that its actions are proportionate and measured. Disproportionate action will only escalate an already dangerous situation."

The U.S. State Department advised Americans in Lebanon to assess security risks. Sean McCormack, the department's chief spokesman, said the U.S. was making plans to handle potential emergencies, although it had not ordered evacuations. He said U.S. military officials were being consulted on possible evacuation plans.

*

Gerstenzang reported from St. Petersburg and Richter from Washington.

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