(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Obama administration is "comfortable" with the British government's attempts to engage Hizbullah, a senior British diplomat asserts.
Bill Rammell, Britain's minister of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs, said in a brief interview late last week that despite protests to the contrary, the new US administration doesn't object to the fledgling contacts with the "political win" of the Lebanon-based Shi'ite Muslim group, which also has a heavily armed militia.
Britain likens the attempt to engage Hizbullah, launched quietly this year, to London's outreach to political leaders of the Irish Republican Army earlier - a move that helped quell the Northern Ireland conflict.
"We have a different approach on this issue at the moment with the United States," he said. "But it's not an issue of disagreement in intentions. The feedback we had on Lebanon is that the Americans are comfortable with us doing things differently than they are at the moment."
Senior US officials privately have mocked and publicly rejected the British decision. "Our position on Hizbullah remains unchanged," Jeffrey Feltman, the US deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs, told lawmakers last month. "We see no distinction between the leadership and funding of the group's terrorist, military, political and social wings.
Another British diplomat said George W. Bush administration officials harshly criticized the idea of approaching Hizbullah last year. Americans worried "it would be seen as a policy coordinated with the US government," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Although the Obama administration rejects the British approach, Rammell said initial US alarm has given way to curiosity and that there is "no antagonism" between the two allies over the issue. Rammell's areas of responsibility include the Middle East, Afghanistan and North America, according to the Web site of Britain's Foreign Ministry.
France, with deep historical and cultural ties to Lebanon, has long maintained relations with Hizbullah. Rammell said the British attempt to engage Hizbullah would proceed incrementally, in an attempt at "testing the waters."
In a meeting last week with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Rammell also said London was ready to engage with Hamas, if it renounced violence.
"I would like to talk to Hamas, but we need change before engaging in that position," he said at the meeting.
He added that Hizbullah also must reject violence before any dialogue could broaden.
Rammell, who ended a two-day visit to Syria on Thursday, said the West must acknowledge what he described as "positive changes" that have taken place in Lebanon over the last few months, including the formation of a unity government and the appointment of a consensus president supported by US-backed political groups and the Hizbullah-led camp.
Rammell noted Hizbullah's increased involvement in Lebanon's ordinary political life, with "Hizbullah (lawmakers) sitting side by side with their opponents" in the legislative chamber.