U.S., allies deeply divided over cease-fire

August 03, 2006|By ALISSA J. RUBIN | ALISSA J. RUBIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

UNITED NATIONS -- Deep disagreements about the terms of a peace deal for Lebanon divided the United States from most of its European allies yesterday as the Security Council struggled to take preliminary steps toward a resolution that could silence the guns.

For a second time this week, diplomats canceled a meeting of countries that might contribute troops to a peacekeeping mission. The meeting had been scheduled for today, but a key contributor, France, refused to attend until there was a broad deal in place that includes a cease-fire.

However, the language used by U.N. diplomats to describe their differences was softer than earlier in the week, and privately diplomats indicated that they expected agreement in the next few days on a draft resolution that would outline a cease-fire arrangement.

The Security Council is working on a text written by the French rather than on competing versions.

But just beneath the rapprochement remain deep differences over Middle East policy between the U.S. and its European allies. Washington agrees with Israel on the need to cripple Hezbollah and thereby deal a blow by proxy to Iran.

For the Europeans, particularly the French whose ties to Lebanon and Syria date to the period when both were French protectorates, the specter of a broader war, the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians and the destruction of a country that has been painstakingly rebuilt in the past decade loom much larger.

With that in mind, the Europeans are engaged in diplomacy viewed as crucial to any peace deal, some of it with Syria, a country with which the United States has refused to engage directly.

U.S. diplomats did their best to play down the tensions.

"There are differences in approach to the nature of the cessation of hostilities and how to make it permanent, but there is near complete agreement on the fundamental political framework that has to be put in place," said U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton.

The sequence of elements of the deal remains the crucial point of disagreement. The EU wants an immediate truce followed by a negotiation on the framework of a long-term cease-fire that would include such elements as the disarming of Hezbollah and its integration into the Lebanese army.

The U.S. is reluctant to agree to a multistep process, which it and the Israelis fear would give Hezbollah time to re-arm. However, achieving agreement could take days or weeks in which there could be many more civilian casualties.

Britain has backed the U.S. view while pressing Washington to move quickly.

Increasingly the U.S. appears isolated in its arguments. On Tuesday, the European Union approved a statement urging an "immediate cessation of hostilities to be followed by a sustainable cease-fire," language that the United States staunchly resists because it would undercut Israel's offensive.

Israel has said it needs a couple more weeks to complete military action against Hezbollah. If such language were adopted, Hezbollah would also have to stop firing missiles at Israel.

U.S. allies in the Muslim world, which had mostly maintained an uncomfortable silence, began to criticize the U.S. position openly. Saudi Arabia, which initially expressed dismay over the Hezbollah raid, hit squarely at the U.S. yesterday, saying the U.S. should put pressure on Israel to stop.

Despite U.S. objections, diplomats appeared to be creeping closer to an arrangement along the lines of what the French sought. The French and possibly the Turks are likely to lead the force, and they have to have a strong say in the terms, diplomats said.

Under discussion is the creation of a zone in which Hezbollah would not operate. Later, Hezbollah would have to assent to its fighters becoming part of the Lebanese military, said diplomats close to the negotiations.

Such an arrangement would be similar to the one in Kosovo in which the Kosovo Liberation Army initially agreed to stop its attacks on Serbs and subsequently become part of the police force. That arrangement has had mixed success.

Also under discussion is a two-stage peacekeeping force: the vanguard going in immediately to southern Lebanon and a second force following in several months. The U.S. supports such an approach, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began talking about it during her Middle East trip last week.

Further, any political agreement would require the involvement of Hezbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria. EU members are moving to fill the void left by Washington's lack of contact with those countries.

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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