July 23, 2006

Diplomacy intensifies in Israel over Lebanon war

By Matthew Tostevin

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Envoys from three European countries
joined intensifying diplomacy in Israel on Sunday aimed at
ending fighting between Israeli forces and Hizbollah that has
wrecked swathes of Lebanon and left hundreds dead.

Ministers from France, Germany and Britain held separate
talks with Israeli officials ahead of U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice's arrival in the Middle East. She was due to
leave Washington for the region on Sunday and expected to hold
meetings in Israel on Tuesday.

Among questions up for discussion was a possible beefed up
peacekeeping force for south Lebanon, an idea backed by
Israel's defense minister as a way to keep Hizbollah from the

European countries have been far more critical of Israel's
offensive than its main ally, the United States, which has
resisted growing calls for a ceasefire and made clear that it
blames Iranian-backed Hizbollah for the crisis.

Few expect diplomacy to deliver swift results and an
Israeli newspaper reported on Sunday that Israeli officials
believe they have a green light from Washington to continue the
onslaught on Hizbollah for at least another week.

"My question to Jerusalem and Beirut is the same," said
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. "How do we reach
a ceasefire as quickly as possible?"

Douste-Blazy was visiting the Israeli city of Haifa when it
came under Hizbollah rocket fire that killed two people and
took cover in a stairwell when the sirens sounded.

Israeli attacks aimed at Hizbollah have killed more than
360 Lebanese, most of them civilians, since the guerrilla group
captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July
12. Israeli troops have edged into southern Lebanon.

A total of 37 Israelis have died, 17 of them civilians
killed by Hizbollah rockets rained on the north of the country.


Douste-Blazy, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier and British Foreign Office minister Kim Howells all
had meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

"There must be efforts that would lead to calming the
situation. We have to continue those efforts especially with
the increasing number of civilian victims," Steinmeier told a
news conference after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud

"There are extremists in the region who should not dictate
the Middle East process."

Howells, who has delivered Britain's strongest criticism of
Israel's offensive, stressed his concern at the attacks.

"I am very disturbed the more I hear about the extent of
this military campaign. At some stages there are 60 jets out
there over the Mediterranean waiting to hit targets," he told a
news briefing in Haifa.

"We want to see an early cessation of this conflict."

German and British ministers both said they did not think
their countries would send troops for any expanded force in
south Lebanon. Israel's Defense Minister Amir Peretz earlier
welcomed the idea of an international border force, possibly
led by NATO countries, and stronger than the current U.N.

Rice has said an immediate ceasefire would be a "false
promise" that would let Hizbollah re-emerge to attack Israel.

Foreign ministers from the world's most powerful countries
and Arab states are due to hold an emergency meeting in Rome on
Wednesday to discuss the crisis. No decision on international
action is likely before that.

(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah, Jonathan
Saul in Haifa, Emma Thomasson in Jerusalem)