Exclusive: US calls for Mount Dov talks

Wants Israel to negotiate with Syria over possible withdrawal from Shaba Farms.

olmert rice  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
olmert rice
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The US is "counseling" Israel to negotiate a possible withdrawal from the Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) area with Lebanon as part of a long-term arrangement for Lebanon, The Jerusalem Post has learned. This issue was one of the focuses of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's talks in Jerusalem Tuesday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. However, this issue - as well as discussions about the mandate and composition of a possible multinational force in Lebanon - was shunted aside Wednesday because of the bitter fighting and the IDF losses at Bint Jbail. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened his senior ministers Wednesday night - a group known as the forum of seven - to discuss the day's fighting and its ramifications. In addition to Olmert, this forum, empowered by the security cabinet to make operative decisions regarding the fighting, includes Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Olmert convened the forum in his offices in Tel Aviv, after helicoptering to the North where he met with mayors and local council heads and was briefed on Wednesday's battle. After meeting with Safed Mayor Yishai Maimon, Olmert said that this war was "different than all those we have waged in the past." He would not say when the IDF operation would end, only that Hizbullah would "learn this on their own, the hard way." Regarding the day after the fighting, however, one component to emerge from Rice's meetings here Tuesday was a feeling among the Americans that eventually getting to a "cessation of hostilities" will entail both Israel and Lebanon - Lebanon, not Hizbullah - being able to point to some kind of victory. In this formula, Israel's victory would clearly be a roundly defeated Hizbullah pushed back from the northern border. For the Lebanese, a victory could be an Israeli withdrawal from Mount Dov, and a massive international aid package. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora alluded to the issue during his comments at the press briefing at the end of the Rome Conference Wednesday, saying that the conference presented an opportunity to express "Lebanon's demands that for so many years part of our country is still occupied, which is represented by the Shaba Farms, which [is] still occupied [by] Israel." The US is not pressing Israel on the issue, but is discussing with Jerusalem when the right time would be to put it on the table, the Post has learned. The concern in both Washington and Jerusalem is that a willingness to talk about this not be interpreted as a victory for Hizbullah. Nevertheless, the US is counseling Israel to consider when to raise the issue. The area is a 100 square mile parcel of land located at the foot of Mount Hermon where the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli borders meet. Israel took control of the area after the Six Day War in 1967, and since then has built up a number of military outposts on the strategic hills. The UN has said that this area is part of Israeli-occupied Syria, and the Syrians have never been willing to relinquish the area to the Lebanese. Any deal on this matter would also have to involve Syrian acquiescence. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev, when asked whether Israel would be willing to discuss this matter with the Lebanese, said, "As far as I know, no one in the international community believes that Shaba farms is part of Lebanon." The idea of bringing the Shaba Farms issue into the whole equation was first broached last week by UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen on his visit here. During meetings in Jerusalem, Roed-Larsen presented this as something that Israel could give to the Lebanese. Israel's response at the time was that it was much too premature to talk about the issue.