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(photo credit: AP [file])
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not significantly bridge his gap with Israel over how to best implement an arms embargo against Hizbullah, senior diplomatic officials said Wednesday night.
"I agree with the prime minister that we need an effective mechanism," Annan said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. "But we need to be flexible."
Annan said he did not feel there was "any one way of solving a problem," and that "we shouldn't insist that the only way is by deploying international forces. That may be one way, but there may be other effective ways of doing it. What we need is an effective mechanism, and that is what we are working for."
One suggestion that has been raised in recent days is that Germany would train the Lebanese army to do the job, and the Lebanese army alone would be deployed along the border.
Israel's position is that at this time the Lebanese army does not seem to have the capacity to keep arms from flowing to Hizbullah across the long frontier with Syria. Olmert said Israel feels that deployment of UNIFIL forces would be the most effective way to enforce the embargo.
Annan, on a whirlwind tour to the Middle East that has already taken him to Lebanon, and will also take him to Syria and Iran, also met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Vice Premier Shimon Peres before going to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry denied reports that Annan brought with him the outline of a deal to free captured reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. According to these reports, Hizbullah would release them after getting an agreement from Israel that a few weeks later it would release Lebanese prisoners.
"There was no such package discussed," said a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office.
Annan, at his press conference with Olmert, said that he discussed the plight of the abducted soldiers at the highest levels in Lebanon, including with a Hizbullah cabinet minister.
"I did not get the impression they are not alive," he said. "I believe they are alive."
The most important aspect of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1701, Olmert said, "is the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers."
Olmert and Annan met for some 90 minutes, of which 20 minutes were in private. Aides to Olmert described the atmosphere as "friendly" and "warm."
With Annan at his side, Olmert said that he believes 1701 could be a "cornerstone" to creating "a new reality with Israel and Lebanon."
He reiterated that Israel had no conflict with the Lebanese government or people, and "we certainly hope that conditions will change rapidly to allow direct contact between the government of Israel and the government of Lebanon in order to hopefully soon reach an agreement between the two countries."
Later in the day, however, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said his country would be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel.
Annan characterized 1701 as a "fixed menu, not a buffet that you can pick and choose. We have to implement it in its entirety." He again called on Israel to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, saying that it was hurting the Lebanese government and weakening the democratically elected government there.
But Olmert made no promises and stressed Israel's call for an effective monitoring of the Lebanese-Syrian border, as well as other entry points into Lebanon. Israel has said that the blockade would be lifted once it was clear that the embargo was being enforced.
Foreign Ministry officials said that much of Annan's meeting with Livni was taken up with a discussion of the Iranian nuclear issue.
Annan, at his press conference, defended his decision to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Teheran later this week, even though he has called for the destruction of Israel.
"I am aware of what the president of Iran has said and, as I have indicated in the past, Israel is a member of the UN, a recognized member state and has the right to exist," he said. "One cannot wipe away Israel with a statement. Those types of statements should not be made."
At the same time, Annan said that as head of an international body of sovereigns states, each with different backgrounds, systems and policies, he reserves the right to talk to all member states.
He said that he had no hesitation about meeting Ahmadinejad and the Iranian leadership.
"As secretary-general of the United Nations, I have no other means of influencing people except through dialogue, though persuasion and through honest discussion," he said. "And if I am not allowed to see or talk to them, how do I do it. How do I even explain that Israel is a state that is member of the UN and that thee should not be any incitement against Israel. If you know a better way I can do that than talking to them, I would like to know."
Annan's decision to go to Teheran elicited an angry response from ADL national director Abe Foxman, who is currently in Israel. Foxman said Annan's plan to meet Ahmadinejad "demeans and degrades his office. Would he go to meet Hitler? This is a man who time and again has vowed to destroy Israel and who openly questions the Holocaust." â€¢