Wednesday, 26 July 2006

Iran the 500-pound gorilla as diplomats gather in Rome

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Diplomats from the West and the Middle East gather in Rome today, two weeks after a cross-border attack spiraled into deadly warfare, in hope of pressing the Israelis and Hezbollah's leaders on a cease-fire and, perhaps, an international force to maintain peace along Lebanon's southern border with Israel.

When the meeting was scheduled, long ago, the agenda was to discuss the economic regeneration of Lebanon. But the violence of the past two weeks had suddenly imbued the gathering with fresh urgency.

"I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday before meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. "We, of course, also urgently want to end the violence."

"In Rome, we'll be searching for a solution," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday, calling for an immediate humanitarian truce to end the fighting. "What is important is that we leave Rome with a concrete strategy as to how we are going to deal with this, and we do not walk away empty-handed and once again dash the hopes of those who are caught in this conflict."

Participants at the conference include not only the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, but also Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, all important regional players. All of them agree on the need for a cease-fire and a beefed-up multinational force to help keep the peace.

But lurking behind the talk of warfare that has led to rising tolls of dead and wounded on both sides, as well as destruction of much of Lebanon's infrastructure, is the issue of what to do about Iran, Hezbollah's chief bankroller.

Israel has said that breaking Iran's hold on Hezbollah in Lebanon is the aim of its massive military response to the initial incursion by the militant Islamic group on July 12 -- which resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight more in ground fighting, plus the barrage of Hezbollah rockets into northern Israel.

Ephraim Sneh, leader of the Labor Party faction in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and deputy defense minister at the time of Israel's pullout after an 18-year occupation from Lebanon in 2000, said the defeat of Hezbollah could be a turning-point in the growing confrontation with the Iranians.

"If we complete this mission, it will be our first victory over Iran and will constitute an unmistakable message that we have no intention to shy away from Iran's nuclear and terrorist threat," Sneh wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. The desire to thwart Iran also helps explain the foot-dragging that has characterized U.S. and British diplomacy since fighting broke out.

"There have been, as you would expect, over the past few days, enormous diplomatic efforts to get us to the point where I hope at some point within the next few days we can say very clearly what our plan is to bring about such an immediate cessation of hostilities, and to try to make sure that we put in place then some mechanism that will allow greater stability in the region," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in Downing Street earlier this week.

As observers struggled to understand the timeline suggested by Blair's words, Rice was bringing the Bush administration's view to Jerusalem. Despite international pressure, President Bush has declined to pressure Israel, Washington's close ally, to stop bombing, allowing Israeli forces to finish wiping out Hezbollah's military capability in Lebanon.

"If we have learned anything, it is that any peace is going to have to be based on enduring principles and not on temporary solutions," Rice told Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday. "We will talk about how to get to an enduring cessation of violence, how to deal with the significant humanitarian problems that are currently facing the people of Lebanon."

"The situation which has been developing in Lebanon over the past few years obliged us to set targets whereby we could remove the threat and also ensure long-term stability," Livni said in Jerusalem on Sunday night. "The diplomatic negotiations which we are engaged in accompany the military operation and are designed to safeguard the army's achievements and to achieve, together with the international community, a better situation in the long term."

In other words, she appeared to be saying, Israeli diplomacy is not geared to achieving a cease-fire. Its aim is to solidify Israeli military gains, and diplomacy cannot be undertaken until those military aims are achieved.

If the international community has given Israel a free hand in Lebanon for the moment, Israel also has given way on one of its most dearly-held principles -- an international peacekeeping force.

Israel's experience of the UNIFIL observers in Lebanon -- several of whom were killed by an errant Israeli bomb Tuesday -- has been an unhappy one. The July 12 ambush that sparked the current crisis took place within sight of a U.N. position.

As recently as July 18, Israel's prime minister dismissed the idea of another multinational force. Briefing Israeli diplomats in Jerusalem, Olmert called an international force a good headline, but said Israel's experience "shows that there is nothing behind it."

By Sunday, the Israelis had performed a U-turn.

"We are going to discuss with the international community the best way to support the Lebanese government," said Livni. "We believe that the responsibility is of the Lebanese government, but we can support some ideas of effective forces that will help."

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