(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Talking to Hizbullah would be counterproductive, Israel strongly conveyed to London after a weekend in which the notion of opening a diplomatic channel to the Shi'ite organization was raised by a British minister and enthusiastically embraced by the terror group.
Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, told the British Parliament on Wednesday that his government would hold discussions with Hizbullah's political wing.
Rammell said the decision was made "in the light of more positive developments in Lebanon, and the formation of the national unity government in which Hizbullah is participating."
"Our over-riding objective is to press Hizbullah to play a more constructive role and move away from violence," he had said.
Rammell said Britain would not have talks with Hizbullah's military wing, and that the talks with Hizbullah would have no impact on London's refusal to deal with Hamas.
The Foreign Ministry condemned Rammel's statements last week, but on Sunday, ministry spokesman Yigal Pamor said that discussions with London over the last few days confirmed that the apparent change in the UK's position was only from a minor statement that was blown out of proportion.
Palmor said the change in position was a clarification made public by Britain, which wants to continue holding relations with the Lebanese government, where Hizbullah is an active player. The UK's Foreign Office assured Palmor that the traditional British stance, rejecting any direct contact or dialogue with Hizbullah, remains in place.
On Saturday, Hizbullah deputy leader Sheik Naim Kassem said that he welcomed a new American and European approach toward the Lebanese terror group. He added that his group expected new language by the West in dealing with the organization which calls for Israel's destruction.
Mahmoud Komati, deputy leader of Hizbullah's political bureau, said Friday: "The British have been constantly trying for nearly a year to hold a dialogue with us, but they wanted a secret dialogue," Komati said. "If [Britain] wants a dialogue, let this dialogue be in public."
Legislator Mohammed Fneish, who represents Hizbullah in the unity government, welcomed Britain's decision to establish contacts with the group.
"Hizbullah has no objection to holding contacts with Britain," Fneish told The Associated Press. "Hizbullah's policy is to be open. Therefore, we are ready for dialogue and contacts with any country that is not hostile to us."
Hizbullah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi also praised Britain's decision as "a step in the right direction."
In London, Foreign Secretary David Miliband explained Britain's decision to reconsider its policy toward Hizbullah as part of an effort to press the group to disarm.
"We've sanctioned low-level contacts with them so that we can make absolutely clear our determination to see UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the disbanding of militias among other things in Lebanon, taken forward with real speed," Miliband said Friday on BBC Radio 4's "Today" program.
That resolution also ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Miliband said Hizbullah's military wing remains on Britain's list of outlawed groups.
"Our objective with Hizbullah remains to encourage them to move away from violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics, in line with a range of UN Security Council Resolutions," the ministry said Thursday.
Despite Britain's attempt to minimize the significance of Rammel's statement, Jerusalem officials said it might have been made to test the waters in order to examine reactions in Israel and the Arab world. The officials emphasized that pacifying messages from London were not enough and they were waiting to hear a clear, well defined position that would prevent any possibility of opening channels to the legitimization of Hizbullah.
Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report