Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hezbollah Spurns Secret Overture on Lebanon Truce

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
Secret efforts to set up a cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel have hit a brick wall, despite what appeared to be a public softening of the Jewish state's position. READ MORE

Prime Minister Olmert yesterday again ruled out Hezbollah's original demand, an exchange of prisoners. But he held out the prospect that the bombing of Lebanon would end if the two soldiers abducted in a cross-border raid July 12 were returned.

Mr. Olmert said the aim of the current Israeli operation in Lebanon is to cripple and weaken Hezbollah. He told the Knesset, "Israel will not agree to live in the shadow of missiles or rockets against its residents."

A co-director of an organization that has worked regularly as a secret intermediary between political Islamic groups and Western governments said its recent contacts with Hezbollah and Israel suggest that both sides have dug in their heels and are not amenable to a truce.

"It does not seem we are close to any cease-fire," Mark Perry of the Conflicts Forum told The New York Sun. "Hezbollah will not do it just so Israel will stop pounding them. They feel they can dig in for months."

He added, "People are negotiating in public right now."

Alastair Crooke, Mr. Perry's associate at the Conflicts Forum and a onetime MI6 operations officer, last spoke with his Hezbollah contact on Saturday, Mr. Perry said.

Mr. Perry said he has shared his pessimistic assessment of the situation with Western governments. The Conflicts Forum, based in London, receives funding from private individuals and some government grants, including a recent grant from the European Union.

Efforts to bring a temporary end to the hostilities are the focus of this week's international diplomacy, both at the G-8 summit in Russia and the U.N. Security Council in New York. In a private remark to Prime Minister Blair inadvertently picked up by an open microphone yesterday, President Bush said he would send Secretary of State Rice to the region soon to explore options for peace. A three-man delegation representing Secretary-General Annan will travel to Damascus this week to assess the likelihood of an end to the spiraling violence that has engulfed Israel, Lebanon, and Gaza in the last week.

The outline of a cease-fire deal, Mr. Perry said, would require that Hezbollah return two kidnapped Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, retreat behind a 25-mile area in southern Lebanon, and agree to a new international force to patrol the area vacated by Hezbollah forces.

However, the fighting escalated yesterday as the Israeli air assault hit coastal ports in northern Lebanon, apartment buildings where Hezbollah leaders are believed to be based, and factories, according to wire reports. Hezbollah fired three more rounds of missiles into the northern Israeli city of Haifa, forcing intelligence analysts there to move their operations to an underground bunker.

Israeli radio reported yesterday that Hezbollah fired a dud missile, the Zilzal 2, which has a range of 120 miles, far enough to reach Tel Aviv, the country's financial center and largest city. The reports of the misfire came in response to Hezbollah claims that it had successfully downed an Israeli aircraft. Israel claimed the wreckage that fell from the sky was the remains of the Iranian-made missile.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that Israeli aircraft were honing in on the underground bunkers in Lebanon occupied by Hezbollah's military leadership. Those expected to be found inside include Imad Mugniyah, a master terrorist who plotted the 1983 operations that killed 241 American Marines stationed in Beirut. Mr. Mugniyah was America's most wanted terrorist before the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In January, Israeli soldiers on the border with Lebanon told the Sun that photographs of Hezbollah positions on the Lebanese side suggested that Mr. Mugniyah made regular visits to that front.

Prime Minister Siniora of Lebanon told Reuters yesterday that the Israeli attacks had inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage to his country. "What Israel has been doing is cutting the country to pieces," he said.

The fighting yesterday was not limited to Lebanon. In Gaza, Israeli warplanes destroyed the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority's Foreign Ministry building.