On Sunday, senior diplomatic officials said
Israel will not rule out an international presence in southern Lebanon to prevent Hizbullah from returning there after the completion of the current military operation.
The official said this would undoubtedly be on the agenda when a high-level delegation headed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's senior adviser V.J. Nambiar and Terje Roed-Larsen arrives on Tuesday.
Diplomatic officials said that what was being discussed was something that went beyond UNIFIL, and would be more like the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai, the multinational peace-keeping force stationed there.
However, a senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said, "We are not even close to that point," and that Israel wanted to see the Lebanese army deploy along Israel's northern border.
Nevertheless, the G-8, in a statement issued Sunday on the crisis, alluded to the possibility of an international force. "We would welcome an examination by the UN Security Council of the possibility of an international security/monitoring presence," a G-8 statement on the current crisis said.
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem expressed satisfaction at the statement issued in St. Petersburg, saying that for the most part it adopted Israel's narrative that Hizbullah and Hamas were responsible for the escalation.
"The immediate crisis results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region and to frustrate the aspirations of the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese people for democracy and peace," the statement read.
"In Gaza, elements of Hamas launched rocket attacks against Israeli territory and abducted an Israeli soldier. In Lebanon, Hizbullah, in violation of the Blue Line, attacked Israel from Lebanese territory and killed and captured Israeli soldiers, reversing the positive trends that began with the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, and undermining the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
"These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict. The extremists must immediately halt their attacks," the statement said.
While the statement called on Israel to "be mindful of the strategic and humanitarian consequences of its actions" and act with restraint, it did not refer to a disproportionality in Israel's response.
As for operative recommendations, the statement called - in this order - for the return of the Israeli soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon unharmed, an end to the shelling of Israeli territory, an end to Israeli military operations and the early withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the release of the arrested Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians.
Senior officials in Jerusalem said the significance of this statement was that it showed that the G-8 accepted Israel's right to self-defense following acts of provocation.
"This gives us legitimacy for our actions up until now," one government official said, "and - if the rocket fire does not stop - also provides legitimacy for further actions." He said the statement also gave Israel more "operative maneuverability" to continue pounding Hizbullah before the world steps in.
This statement came a day before the EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels, and Israeli officials said the G-8 statement was expected to impact on the conclusions coming out of Brussels as well, as the Europeans will now be unlikely to take a line that varied widely from the G-8. Last week the EU slammed Israel for a disproportionate response.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who was originally expected in Israel Sunday night, has canceled his trip because of "scheduling problems." He is, however, expected to travel to Lebanon on Monday, and was likely to arrive in Israel later in the week.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, signaled an openness to talk with the UN delegation when it arrives over how to end the crisis. He said that while Israel had a checkered past with the UN, it was important to bear in mind that the UN Security Council did pass Resolution 1559 which calls on the Lebanese government to dismantle armed militias and take full control of all of Lebanon. Furthermore, he said, Annan shepherded this resolution through the UN system, over Syrian objections.
Olmert told the cabinet that Israel would cooperate with the UN delegation as long as its goals would first and foremost be the return of the abducted Israeli soldiers, and the end of rocket fire on Israel both in the North and the South. "We are not going to return to the situation that existed before last Wednesday," Olmert said "That was an insufferable situation."
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, in his briefing to Sunday's cabinet, asked the government to give it time to deliver a blow to Hizbullah from which it would be difficult for the organization to recover.
"The way we finish this will have ramifications for the entire Middle East," Halutz said, adding that "everyone is watching" - the Syrians, the Palestinians and the Iranians. He said the goal is to severely weaken Hizbullah militarily, diplomatically, and in terms of support it gets from the Lebanese population.
Nevertheless, government officials said that everyone realizes that the time frame Israel has to act is not unlimited.
Olmert told the cabinet that Israel would not agree to a cease-fire until "we will thwart their ability to return to their previous actions." At the same time, Olmert called at the cabinet meeting for "responsible and measured responses," and said that moves such as knocking out Lebanon's electrical grid would be counterproductive.
"We need to focus on Hizbullah, and not go after other targets," he said. He added that Israel did not want to topple the Lebanese government, but rather see it move its troops south.
"We are not fighting against Saniora or the Lebanese people, but rather [Hizbullah head Hassan] Nasrallah, who is holding the country hostage and is at the forefront of the axis of evil," he said.
At the outset of the meeting Olmert said the fighting would have "far-reaching implications" on how Israel would relate in the future to the northern border and the entire region.
"Israel cannot accept this situation," he said. "We have no interest in harming the Lebanese or Palestinian people. We want to live our lives quietly and as good neighbors. But unfortunately there are those who interpreted our desire for peace in the wrong manner."
Olmert said Israel had "no intention of surrendering in the face of these threats. We know that there will be many more tests; our enemies are trying to disrupt life in Israel, and they will fail.
"The public is strong and unified in this struggle," he said. "In the North and the South, the steadfastness that the people are displaying is an important element of Israel's strength, and we are proud of that."
Halutz told the cabinet that Israel intended to create a one-kilometer-deep "fire zone" along the border that would be cleared of any Hizbullah elements. He said the IDF had troops on the ground in the area "leveling"the Hizbullah outposts that overlooked the border.
"From now on," he said, "there will not be a Hizbullah presence on the border. We don't want to remain there, and will level the areas so that they cannot return."
Halutz said that the operation was proceeding as planned, and that the Hizbullah headquarters in Beirut "does not exist anymore." He said that the IAF had leveled two building there that served as the organization's headquarters, and attacked any building that served the organization in any way.
In addition, he said that the IAF was concentrating on attacking Hizbullah's logistical center in Baalbek. Halutz praised the steadfastness of the Israeli home front, saying that its support and determination was extremely important in winning this battle.
The chief of staff added that Hizbullah was firing missiles from the outskirts of villages, and that no one should then be surprised if Israel attacked there as well. When asked whether there was a need to deploy ground troops in Lebanon, Halutz replied, "Not at this time, but it is not inconceivable - we have operational plans."
He explained to the ministers that the Patriot batteries in Haifa were not deployed there to bring down the missiles, since they would then be scattered over a heavily populated area, but rather to give a minute's warning to Haifa residents of incoming missiles, so they could find shelter.
OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin briefed the cabinet and said that Nasrallah was surprised by the extent of Israel's response. "If he had known that this would be our response, he would not have kidnapped the soldiers," he said.
According to Yadlin, Nasrallah thought that this action would make him a hero in the Arab world, but instead he has found himself criticized in the Sunni world - in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even in Lebanon. He said that Iran was involved in the planning, training and supply of weaponry to Hizbullah.
Halutz said that some of the missiles that landed in Haifa were Syrian-issued, and that the attacks on the Damascus-Beirut highway had foiled plans for another shipment of rockets to Hizbullah.
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