Ayalon: Israel unaware of US deadline

Kouchner reportedly warns Israeli 'stubbornness' could lead US to stop sponsoring peace talks.

Danny Ayalon 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Danny Ayalon 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel is unaware of any six-month deadline placed by the US for freezing settlement construction in the West Bank, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Saturday night. According to a report earlier in the day in Lebanon's An-Nahar daily, visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Lebanese officials that if Israel failed to stop all Jewish construction in the West Bank by the six-month deadline, the US would end its support for peace talks. "We have no knowledge of this whatsoever," Ayalon said through a spokesman. The Lebanese paper quoted Kouchner as expressing the fear that Israel's "stubbornness, intentional foot-dragging and acquiescence to the Israel lobby" would convince the Americans to pull out of peace discussions altogether. The Jerusalem Post could not independently confirm that Kouchner had made the statements by press time. The French foreign minister was in Beirut on Friday for talks with senior Lebanese officials, including Hizbullah legislator Nawaf Musawi. The meeting with Musawi dealt with efforts to form a new coalition government led by Prime Minister-designate Sa'ad Hariri. Hariri's government looks likely to include Hizbullah representation, though the Shi'ite group was defeated in national parliamentary elections in early June and may be a weaker partner than in the last government. After its gunmen overran Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut in May 2008, Hizbullah received the power to veto government decisions. Hariri's political allies are unwilling to let the group, which maintains a military force separate from the Lebanese army, retain that veto power. Israel is opposed to Hizbullah joining the government. Mark Regev, adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, responded to the Kouchner-Musawi meeting by warning that "if Hizbullah joins the Lebanese government, then Lebanon as a country will be responsible for any Hizbullah aggression against Israel. That has to be clear." During Friday's meeting, Musawi said he briefed Kouchner on what he described as Israel's almost daily military flights over Lebanon in breach of the UN resolution that ended the Second Lebanon War. He also spoke of alleged Israeli spy networks in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have arrested about 100 people suspected of spying for or collaborating with Israel in recent weeks. Kouchner also met with Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Christian leader Michel Aoun and Hariri. Kouchner's meeting with a Hizbullah lawmaker is the latest in a string of European meetings with the group, which the US and the European parliament have recognized as a terrorist organization. Kouchner defended the meeting. "Hizbullah is part of the parties that participated in the recent parliamentary elections. It is natural to meet with its representatives," he told reporters. "Lebanon is a democratic country; democracy implies we meet with opposition figures as well," the English-language Daily Star quoted him as saying. Last month in Beirut, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, held the first meeting between a senior EU diplomat and a Hizbullah official. On Thursday, visiting British lawmakers met with the head of Hizbullah's 12-member bloc in parliament, Muhammad Raad. The British Foreign Office announced in March that it had contacted Hizbullah's political wing in an attempt to reach out to its legislators. It said its ultimate aim was to encourage the group to turn away from violence and become a positive force in Lebanese politics. Kouchner also used his Beirut visit to call for the release of 23-year-old French student Clotilde Reiss, who has been jailed by Iranian authorities on charges of spying against the regime. He visited Syria on Saturday, where discussions centered on bilateral relations but also addressed the Middle East peace process, according to reports from Damascus. AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.