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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 July 2006, 13:04 GMT 14:04 UK
Glimmer of hope for Mid-East diplomacy

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

President Bush and Tony Blair at G8 summit
Bush and Blair revealed diplomatic tactics

Diplomacy is gearing up slowly in the Middle East crisis and its intention is not just to end the immediate conflict but to help prevent future ones.

In fact, until future arrangements are agreed it is unlikely that there will be a ceasefire at all.

There is a recognition among many countries that a ceasefire alone will not be enough.

Israel is determined not to go back to the status quo and Israel is one of the parties calling the shots. Ideally, it would like Hezbollah to be disbanded but certainly moved back from the border in a much reduced state.

Getting any agreement or understanding will take time during which Israel will continue to strike at Hezbollah, mainly by artillery and from the air.

It is therefore using the delay in diplomacy to carry out its aims and it appears to have the support of the United States.

This has been a conflict dominated by air strikes not ground fighting and at least there is no immediate expectation of a ground invasion. The Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinski indicated that such an operation was not currently on the agenda: "At this stage we do not think we have to activate massive ground forces into Lebanon but if we have to do this, we will. "

And there has been a hint from an Israeli minister that Israel might after all negotiate for the release of its three missing soldiers.

Avi Dichter, Minister for Public Security, said: " I think in the end we will bring the soldiers home and if one of the ways must be through a negotiation about Lebanese prisoners, I think the day will arrive when we must consider [that] as well."

Such a view runs counter to the very firm position put forward by the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Knesset on Monday. He said that Israel was demanding the release of its soldiers as a condition for a ceasefire. The other conditions were the withdrawal of Hezbollah from the south and the deployment of the Lebanese army there.

Key

The key to any solution, in the view of Western officials, is the phrase in the statement issued by the G8 meeting in St Petersburg on Sunday. This said that "extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos".

This was a reference to Hezbollah and to the two countries that support it, Syria and Iran.

The way to a restoration of peace, therefore, might lie through the door to Damascus. The aim would be to get some arrangement under which Hezbollah is restrained in southern Lebanon, thereby allowing the Israelis to stop their campaign.

Window for Israel

President Bush himself talked about the role of Syria - in an unguarded moment at the G8 summit - when he spoke to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair without knowing that microphones were live. He said: "What they [referring probably to the UN] need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over."

Mr Bush also said that he was sending his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to the region "pretty soon".

The incentive for Hezbollah to agree to some understanding is that it will keep two hostages for which Israel might pay a high price one day

However, nothing is likely to happen for some days or even many days. The US is probably giving Israel a window in which to carry on with its campaign.

The Israelis therefore will continue their efforts to degrade Hezbollah. According to one Israeli source, they have already hit about 30% of Hezbollah's long range rockets. Israel is also likely to go after the Hezbollah leadership. It cannot destroy Hezbollah but it can hurt it.

Hezbollah, of course, will not sit back and do nothing.

Part of a longer-term arrangement has been floated by both UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Tony Blair.

They have proposed that a multinational force be sent to southern Lebanon to oversee whatever new arrangement might be agreed.

There is already a 2,000-strong UN force in the area called the United National Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil). This, however, simply serves as a monitoring group. Mr Annan and Mr Blair have something larger and stronger in mind.

In another apparent sign of Israeli readiness to start thinking in terms of what might follow its military campaign, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated after meeting a UN delegation trying to explore a settlement that Israel would consider "other solutions" than the immediate deployment of the Lebanese army.

Need for guarantees

One of Israel's demands will be to get Hezbollah pushed back from the border. It was the Hezbollah raid into Israel last week in which it captured two soldiers that sparked off the Israeli campaign.

An Israeli source told me: "This is really about making sure that Hezbollah does not have the ability to repeat what it did. We will have to achieve this through a variety of means, not just military. There will have to be deterrence and guarantees and physical distance.

"They have been right on the border with their watchtowers, monitoring what the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] are doing. This is our main goal. We were too complacent before."

The missing element from such a package is the issue of the captured soldiers.

This could be left for later, as Mr Dichter has now hinted. Both sides know that there have been exchanges in the past. Israel might be able to negotiate later, arguing that the situation will have changed.

The incentive for Hezbollah to agree to some understanding is that it will keep two hostages for which Israel might pay a high price one day.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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Statements from Tony Blair and Kofi Annan





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