Bush, Merkel Urge Restraint Amid Escalating Mideast Violence
Breaking his silence on the fiercest Israel-Lebanon clashes in a decade, US President George W. Bush on Thursday insisted that Israel "has the right to defend herself" but urged restraint after its forces pounded Palestinian and Lebanese targets.
"My biggest concern is whether or not actions taken will weaken the Siniora government," he said, referring to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. "Democracy in Lebanon is an important part of laying a foundation for peace in that region. We have worked really hard to get Syria out of Lebanon."
Worst violence in a decade
The American president was speaking from the eastern German town of Stralsund on the Baltic coast where he is meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before heading off to the G-8 summit in Russia over the weekend.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel too called for a "de-escalation" of the conflict in the Middle East -- the worst cross border violence in a decade -- after Israeli fighter jets bombed Lebanon's only international airport and killed 28 civilians in a wave of retaliatory strikes over the killing and capture of soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas on Wednesday.
An Israeli woman was also killed when Hezbollah fired off a barrage of rockets across the volatile border, sending panicked residents of communities in northern Israel into bomb shelters.
Merkel said the violence had been sparked by the capture of the soldiers, but added: "We can only call on everyone to stop the violence, to release the soldiers and to stop the rocket attacks on Israel."
Bush accused Hezbollah and Hamas of trying to derail efforts to bring peace to the Middle East by creating an independent Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel.
"It's really sad where people are willing to take innocent life to stop that process. Matter of fact, it's pathetic," said Bush, who has refused to recognize the Palestinian government led by Hamas.
"Hezbollah doesn't want there to be peace, the militant arm of Hamas doesn't want there to be peace, and those of us who do want peace will continue to work together to encourage peace," Bush said.
"There are a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace, and those of us who are peace-loving must work together to help the agents of peace," he said. "Things looked positive, and terrorists stepped up."
Bush said that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had iniatiated telephone diplomacy to try to calm the situation, and added: "I'll be making calls" as well.
The US president said Damascus, a patron of Hezbollah, must pressure the Lebanese militia to free captured Israeli soldiers.
"Syria needs to be held to account" over a dramatic escalation of violence in the Middle East," Bush said. President Assad needs to show some leadership towards peace."
France, Russia slam Israel's actions
The EU’s 25 foreign ministers are meeting next Monday to discuss the Middle East Peace plan which is essentially only a piece of paper at this point. As part of the so-called Middle East peace quartet, the bloc has spent years trying to move the process along but is now unsure how to position itself in the current crisis.
One group of EU countries, including the UK, Belgium, Italy and Germany, which had been reluctant to openly criticise Israel finally did so on Thursday saying it was using excessive force in Lebanon. France is one of the countries which
has taken an even sharper tone publicly about the Israeli retaliation.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on Europe 1 radio on Thursday that Israel's bombardment of Lebanon was "an act of war". He added that Israel "runs the risk of plunging Lebanon back into the worst years of war."
The Russian ministry said it supported Lebanon's sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also condemned the abduction of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and Palestinian militants. "Acts of terrorism are completely unacceptable," the statement said.
Italian Foreign minister Massimo D'Alema called Israel's actions in the Palestinian territories "counterproductive."
UN weighs in
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has decided to send a three-person team to the Middle East to urge all parties to exercise restraint and help defuse the major crisis in the region.
The team will first visit Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials and consult with Arab League foreign ministers meeting
there on Saturday. The UN team is then expected to head to Israel, the
Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and possibly other destinations.