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U.S. diplomats sit out 2 key talks in Mideast

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Bush administration's unwillingness to talk to groups and countries it labels as terrorist left it watching from the sidelines yesterday during two major diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East.

The first was a deal to form a unity government in Lebanon in which more than a third of the ministers will be from Hezbollah and its allies, which are backed by Syria and Iran, giving the opposition a veto over any Cabinet decision.

The second is a secret negotiation between Israel and Syria mediated by Turkey.

In the Arab League-mediated Lebanon agreement, the U.S.-backed ruling coalition of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora was forced to make serious concessions to Hezbollah in a bid to resolve a long political crisis, which culminated earlier this month in the worst fighting in 18 years.

"I know that the wounds are deep and my injury is deep, but we only have each other to build Lebanon," said Saad Hariri, the pro-U.S. parliament majority leader and son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hezbollah's chief negotiator, Mohammed Raad, said the group did not get everything it had demanded and called the deal "balanced."

The United States, whose policy is not to talk to terrorists, welcomed the agreement but was not invited to the negotiations in Qatar despite its significant interest in Lebanon.

"We view this agreement as a positive step towards resolving the current crisis," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, though she warned that the crisis is not over.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged the U.S. absence from the talks, but he said U.S. interests are being "served by having friends and allies and interested parties in the region advocate for, support and push the spread and deepening of democracy."

"It is not for us to decide how Lebanon does this, how Lebanon's political leadership addresses this," said David C. Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Mr. McCormack said Washington will not deal with any Hezbollah ministers, and will stick to its policy that also applied to two ministers from the militant Shi'ite group who joined the Cabinet in 2006.

He said Hezbollah's image suffered from its recent military campaign, which killed 81 people.

"They used their arms to kill their fellow citizens and so this myth that they have tried to perpetuate there, that this is somehow a resistance movement, has really been completely destroyed by their actions," Mr. McCormack said.

Middle East analysts, however, said the deal reached yesterday shows Hezbollah's influence, as well as that of Syria and Iran - both of which are on the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.

"It is a setback and a defeat for the Siniora government," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "The government certainly did not want to give this veto and has resisted for the last 18 months."

He linked the Doha deal to Israel's secret negotiations with Syria about withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a normalization of ties between the two neighbors.

"Hezbollah cannot survive as it is now, as an armed militia, if Syria and Israel have peace and that is the main concern in its immediate future," he said. "A move to consolidate its position in the capital and in the government is an insurance policy against that eventuality to be able to survive that."

After weeks of official quiet amid Syrian claims that talks were being mediated by Turkey, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that "serious and continuous" indirect talks with Syria are aimed at a "comprehensive peace."

The last time Israel held official talks with Syria was eight years ago in Shepherdstown, W.Va., under the Clinton administration.

The move, which represents a departure from the Bush administration policy of isolating Syria, is an attempt to reverse Iran's growing influence in the region.

"The years which have passed since the negotiations were frozen did not improve the security situation on our northern border, which still serves as our primary source of concern for regional deterioration. In such a situation, it is always better to talk than to shoot," Mr. Olmert said last night.

Opposition members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, immediately assailed the announcement.

"The Golan Heights is vital for the defense of northern Israel and for its water resources," said Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the right-wing Likud Party. "If Israel will come down from the Golan heights, it will backfire on Israel's national security immensely."

"It is obvious that a prime minister who is evading police investigations is willing to burn down the house of everyone," said Effi Eitam, from the far-right National Union Party and a resident of the Golan Heights, referring to an investigation into accusations that Mr. Olmert accepted cash donations from U.S. contributors during his tenure as trade minister.

c Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv.