- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — The world’s most powerful nations yesterday backed President Bush’s assertion that “extremist” terrorist groups are to blame for the escalating violence in the Middle East and endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself, but called on the nation to exercise restraint.

Without naming them, a statement from the Group of Eight lay the blame on Syria and Iran for supporting the militant Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, whose leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed “no limits” in its clash with Israel.

“The immediate crisis results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region and to frustrate the aspirations of the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese people for democracy and peace. … These extremist elements, and those that support them, cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict. The extremists must immediately halt their attacks,” the G-8 leaders said.

The United States said the statement refers to Syria and Iran as backers of extremists who attack Israel, even though it does not name them.

” ‘Those that support them’ are clearly understood to be Syria and Iran, who have long been backers and funders of both Hezbollah and Hamas,” said R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

The statement was a shift for some leaders, who had opposed Mr. Bush’s assertion that Hezbollah is to blame for the burst of violence, which has left more than 100 dead.

Mr. Bush has also said Israel must be able to defend itself, and although the leaders of France and Russia had said in recent days that the response was excessive, they eventually signed off on the statement.

The G-8 said Israel has “the right to defend itself,” but said the nation should be mindful of the “strategic and humanitarian consequences of its actions.”

“We call upon Israel to exercise utmost restraint, seeking to avoid casualties among innocent civilians and damage to civilian infrastructure, and to refrain from acts that would destabilize the Lebanese government,” said the statement, signed by the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

The United States refused to endorse calls for a cease-fire, saying that must be accompanied by constraints on Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran.

But in the statement, the leaders explicitly identified four steps crucial to ending the violence:

• The return of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon unharmed.

• An end to the shelling of Israeli territory.

• An end to Israeli military operations and the early withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

• The release of the arrested Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians.

The G-8 leaders also had fresh demands for Palestinian leaders, saying that “all Palestinian parties should accept the existence of Israel, reject violence” and embrace the diplomatic “road map” that envisions a democratic Palestinian state co-existing side by side with Israel.

The G-8 leaders offered “our full support” for the United Nations’ special mission to the region, and proposed that the U.N. Security Council consider “an international security-monitoring presence” be established on the Israel-Lebanon border.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to address the G-8 leaders today, before the three-day annual summit concludes in the Russian port city of St. Petersburg.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who takes over the G-8 presidency from Russian leader Vladimir Putin next year, said the five-page statement was a “strong and unified” message to the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday she may soon travel to the Middle East to help broker an end to the violence there and warned against settling for a temporary truce.

“We first need a way ahead. Let’s recognize that simply going in and shuttling back and forth if you don’t know where you’re trying to go is not going to help,” she said.

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