16th Jun 2019

US plays down split with Europe over Israel

US foreign affairs chief Condoleezza Rice played down the split between Europe and America on reactions to Israel's bombing of Lebanon, as rapidly developing Middle East events threatened to hijack the energy agenda of the G8 summit in St Petersburg.

"I don't think there is anyone here who would say Israel does not have the right to defend itself," Ms Rice stated on Sunday afternoon (16 July), with the - mostly civilian - death toll from Israeli bombs passing 70 and with 8 Israeli civilians killed by rocket fire, as the UK navy prepares to evacuate its citizens.

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  • Israeli jets have been pounding Lebanon and Gaza for days, with sporadic rocket fire in return (Photo: wikipedia)

"You can pick at a comment here or a comment there, but you should look at the strongest agreement by all the parties here, that the conflict must be resolved under the framework of UN resolution 1559 [on Lebanon]," she added. "We are all concerned about the loss of civilian lives."

The US lays blame on Hamas and Hezbollah militants, arguing that Iran and Syria incited and supported the groups in kidnapping Israeli soldiers to halt Lebanon and Palestine's recent moves toward democracy and peace with Tel Aviv.

Ms Rice declined to call for a ceasefire or to criticise any individual Israeli strikes. "The Israeli government is a good and democratic government," she stated, while rejecting press suggestions that the US' 2003 invasion of Iraq fomented tension in the region as "grotesque."

Mr Bush's Iraq ally, UK leader Tony Blair, broadly aligned himself with the US after a bilateral meeting on Sunday morning, blaming Iran and Syria for disrupting regional "democratisation" and saying "we have got to deal with those underlying conditions."

Iraq deja vu

But French president Jacques Chirac and Russian leader Vladimir Putin came out on Saturday night with strongly anti-Israeli statements in an international polarisation reminiscent of the divisions around the 2003 Iraq invasion itself.

"One may well ask if there isn't today a kind of wish to destroy Lebanon," he said. "I find honestly - as all Europeans do - that the current reactions are totally disproportionate. In the Middle East we are currently in a situation of great fragility and instability."

"We do get the impression that the aims of Israel go beyond just recovering their subjects [three kidnapped soldiers] and they should pursue these aims by peaceful means," Russia's Mr Putin indicated, while striving to maintain a cordial atmosphere at his St Petersburg party.

His comments came after Russian defence minister Sergey Ivanov – who confirmed he has regular contacts with Hamas – warned the violence risks sparking a wider regional war. "There is a real threat of involving third countries into this conflict," he stated.

Finnish EU president Matti Vanhannen also said on Saturday that Israel's "use of force has been disproportionate – all parties must respect human rights under international law" with the EU's top diplomat Javier Solana set to arrive in the region on Sunday night.

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was more conciliatory, stressing that the real solution lies between Israel and its neighbours, not on the G8 table. "The problem in the Middle East is not because of the different statements by the US and Europe," he remarked.

The EU is part of the so-called "quartet" of international peace brokers in the region together with Russia, the US and the UN. It is also the biggest aid donor to the area under the Mediterranean wing of its European Neighbourhood Policy.

Germany's new role

But if the new divisions hark back to the old ones of 2003 on Iraq, the absence of Germany's US-critical ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroder marks a key difference, with new chancellor Angela Merkel opting for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy instead.

German officials at the G8 summit declined to debate the issue with press on Sunday, but German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Reuters on Saturday that Berlin is in "intensive" talks with EU member states, the US, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan.

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