- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Hezbollah’s attack against Israel yesterday left the United States scrambling to ensure the survival of Lebanon’s first sovereign government in 30 years and to avert further escalation of tensions in the Middle East.

U.S. officials, who woke up to forceful demands from Hezbollah and Israeli statements about a state of war that would turn Lebanon back two decades, immediately resorted to private channels with both governments.

One of the more challenging diplomatic tasks, officials said, was to persuade Israel to tone down its rhetoric against the Lebanese government, whose lack of control over the entire country is no secret but whose collapse is the last thing Washington wants.

Israel said it held the government in Beirut equally responsible with the Hezbollah militants for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. But Washington withheld criticism of the government while placing the blame squarely on Hezbollah and its backers in Iran and Syria.

“Let’s focus on who actually committed these acts, and that’s Hezbollah,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. “It is a statement of fact that they do operate outside … of the control of the government of Lebanon.”

An Israeli official questioned Mr. McCormack’s rationale, saying there should be “no more excuses” for the Lebanese who emerged from years of effective Syrian occupation in 2004.

“It is for the Lebanese government to ensure peace and stability along the border,” he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, from Paris, where she met with fellow foreign ministers from the major powers dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Other U.S. diplomats in Washington, Beirut, Tel Aviv and elsewhere worked the issue at lower levels, struggling to balance various interests that intersect in the world’s most dangerous region.

The White House called the Hezbollah operation an “unprovoked act of terrorism, which was timed to exacerbate already high tensions in the region and sow further violence.”

“We also hold Syria and Iran, which have provided long-standing support for Hezbollah, responsible for today’s violence,” spokesman Tony Snow said. “We call for the immediate and unconditional release of the Israeli soldiers.”

In private, the message to Mr. Siniora and his Cabinet was relatively easy to formulate and deliver: Condemn Hezbollah’s attack and distance yourself from it immediately and publicly.

“We would urge the government of Lebanon to speak out about this challenge to their credibility, their sovereignty,” said Mr. McCormack, who noted official Beirut’s silence on the attack.

Not only was there no comment from the government, but Lebanon’s ambassador to Washington, Farid Abboud, sided publicly with Hezbollah, saying on CNN that the only way for the Israeli hostages to be released is for Israel to free some of the thousands of prisoners it is holding captive.

Soon afterward, Mr. Siniora spoke, following an emergency Cabinet meeting in Beirut.

“The government was not aware of and does not take responsibility for, nor endorses what happened on the international border,” he said. He avoided “condemning” Hezbollah’s actions but criticized Israel’s bombing of targets in Lebanon in response to the attack.

Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said Mr. Abboud, an ally of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, was being fired.

“The Cabinet decided to ask the foreign minister to recall immediately Lebanon’s ambassador in Washington because of irresponsible declarations made today that contradict the position and policy of the government,” Mr. Aridi said.

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