- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

From combined dispatches

ST. PETERSBURG — President Bush refused to press Israel for a cease-fire in Middle East violence yesterday, risking a wider breach with world leaders at a weekend summit already confronting crises with Iran and North Korea.

Mr. Bush called the leaders of Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan to explore ways to end three days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Turning aside complaints that Israel is using excessive force, the president rejected a cease-fire plea from Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

“The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

In urging the U.N. Security Council to impose a cease-fire, Lebanese Foreign Ministry official Nouhad Mahmoud said Israel’s stepped-up military campaign was aimed at “bringing Lebanon to its knees and subverting it by any means.”

“I need not explain to you who is the victim and who is the aggressor,” Mr. Mahmoud said.

However, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman told the Security Council that the Lebanese government had brought the Israeli actions on itself, by allowing Hezbollah to remain armed and keep de-facto control over southern Lebanon.

“Lebanon is today occupied by terror,” Mr. Gillerman said. He accused Hezbollah of being part of “an axis of terror” along with the Palestinian militant group Hamas — the elected Palestinian government — and Syria and Iran, which he said support Hamas and Hezbollah.

He urged Lebanon to free itself from the axis by extending its authority across all its territory.

The eruption of Middle East violence moved prominently onto the agenda of the Group of Eight summit, which begins today.

In contrast with Mr. Bush’s stand, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “No hostage takings are acceptable … but neither is the use of full-scale force in response to these, even if unlawful, actions. We will demand that all sides involved in the conflict immediately stop the bloodshed.”

The summit is expected to issue a Middle East declaration, and the United States tried to shape it to be critical of Hezbollah and supportive of Lebanon’s fragile government.

French President Jacques Chirac accused Israel of going too far.

“One could ask if today there is not a sort of will to destroy Lebanon, its equipment, its roads, its communications,” Mr. Chirac said.

Before traveling here from Rome, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said the spiral of violence was making a return to dialogue difficult.

“We have regressed 20 years. If we go on like this, all efforts made in the past years will have been in vain,” he said.

While making appeals to Arab leaders, Mr. Bush did not call Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mr. Snow said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Mr. Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others.

The White House took heart in a statement by Saudi Arabia that the administration interpreted as saying that Hezbollah had acted irresponsibly and independently of the Lebanese government. The White House hopes Arab League foreign ministers, meeting today, also will express concern about Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin met yesterday ahead of the opening of the annual summit, with Moscow trying to clinch a trade deal and Washington warning it on democracy. Despite political strains, the two leaders shook hands and hugged. “Solid friendship,” Mr. Bush said of Mr. Putin.

Today, the leaders are expected to announce an agreement to begin negotiations that ultimately could clear the way for Russia to import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors, aides said.

Mr. Bush had signaled his intent to put democracy at center stage when he arrived in St. Petersburg, telling Russian rights activists he would relay their concerns to Mr. Putin. But he also said he would raise those concerns privately. Mr. Putin’s critics accuse him of rolling back the democratic reforms of the 1990s.

Russia also is hoping for a deal with the United States on its bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), although officials were careful not to build up expectations after three days of negotiations in Moscow.

“As of this hour, it is very difficult to predict at what stage two-way talks will be tomorrow or tonight,” Russian foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko said yesterday, asked about the chances of a WTO deal during the summit.

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