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Archive for Friday, July 14, 2006

President defends Israel’s attacks

July 14, 2006

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— Unexpectedly, Mideast violence pushed to the top of President Bush's agenda today and exposed sharp divisions among allies heading for a weekend summit in Russia.

Bush had hoped the summit of major industrial powers would demonstrate strong unity in condemning Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's long-range missile tests. Instead, the United States and its partners found themselves at odds over Israel's attacks in Lebanon after Hezbollah militants, in a cross-border raid, captured two Israeli soldiers.

"Israel has a right to defend herself," Bush said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Every nation must defend herself against terrorist attacks and the killing of innocent life." Still, he worried that the violence could topple Lebanon's fragile government.

Merkel appealed for restraint by all sides and said it was up to the Hezbollah to defuse the situation, triggered by its cross-border raid from Lebanon into Israel. She called the violence a "very disturbing situation" that "fills us with concern."

The Mideast eruption came at an awkward time for Bush. His strong support of Israel put him at odds with European Union allies two days before the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg. The violence also presented him with yet another crisis in the Middle East - along with the Iraq war and the Iran standoff.

Ten hours after Bush's statement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a news conference and emphasized that Israel should exercise restraint to avoid civilian casualties and damage. She had spent much of the day in telephone diplomacy with Mideast leaders.

"The point about restraint, I think, has been taken by our Israeli colleagues," she said.

Rice declined to criticize Israel for its attacks on the Beirut airport and other targets. "I'm not going to try to judge every single act," she told reporters. She said there was considerable concern about the Mideast, with Israel fighting both in the Gaza and on the Lebanese border, but she refused to address fears of a wider war.

"It doesn't help to speculate on kind of apocalyptic scenarios," she said.

Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley voiced concern that the violence would hurt Lebanon's fledgling, democratic government. Rice said that government presented the best opportunity in three decades for democracy and a reduction of Syrian influence.

"This is one more challenge they do not need," Hadley said. He said the United States was asking other nations in the Middle East - particularly Egypt - to put pressure on Hezbollah to free the Israeli captives.

"Ultimately the best chance for peace will be democracy in Lebanon and the Syrian forces are out and remain out," Rice said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was sending three officials to the Middle East to try to defuse what he described as a major crisis. "What we should all do right now," Rice said, "is to focus on how to make the secretary-general's efforts a success."

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