Olmert: EU force on border possible

Earlier, Peretz said Israel would prefer NATO contingent.

condoleezza rice 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
condoleezza rice 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday Israel would consider deployment of an EU-manned international force in Lebanon if the force has a clear mandate, including monitoring the Syrian-Lebanese border crossings, and is made up of forces that have military capabilities and experience. Olmert's statements came during a meeting with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Olmert said that the force's mandate would need to include control of the crossing points from Syria to Lebanon to prevent the rearmament of Hizbullah after the fighting ends, deployment in southern Lebanon to keep the organization away from Israel‚s northern border, and aid to the Lebanese army so that it could fulfill its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for the disarmament of Hizbullah and the deployment of Lebanon's army in southern Lebanon. Germany is one country being considered as a major source of troops for the international force, as is France, whose Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy also met with Olmert Sunday. Olmert, according to his office, said Israel had no intention of attacking Syria, but if Syria would interfere "we will respond forcefully. We are not currently operating in Syria, and they have to reason to become involved," he said. Olmert, in his talks with Steinmeier, framed the current conflict in the framework of the greater world conflict with Iran. "Hizbullah is directed by Iran and Syria," Olmert said. "The Iranian issue is one that the world will deal with for the coming months, and what is happening now is preparation. If the world does not stand now in a united front against Hizbullah that is being operated from Iran, then how will it be able to convince the Iranians they are really against them." Defense Minister Amir Peretz also said Sunday after meeting Steinmeier that Israel would accept a temporary international force, preferably headed by NATO, deployed along the Lebanese border to keep Hizbullah away from the border. "Israel's goal is to see the Lebanese army deployed along the border with Israel, but we understand that we are talking about a weak army and that, in the interim, Israel will have to accept a multinational force," he said. Earlier in the day, even as the German and French foreign ministers were here and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on her way, Olmert told the cabinet there were no constraints on the IDF's actions in Lebanon. "The IDF has complete flexibility and time to carry out its work," Olmert said. "There are no constraints, time or otherwise." The policy was reiterated by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who told a press conference Sunday evening that the current diplomatic process was working in parallel with the military action, and was meant - in large part - to ensure that there was no vacuum on the ground when the fighting ended. "One of the reasons we started [diplomatic] discussions was to prevent a vacuum, because Hizbullah would enter into this vacuum," she said. Livni said it was important to start the diplomatic process while the military operation was continuing, so that at the end there would be an international force on the ground. Livni made clear that the force would have to meet certain benchmarks of effectiveness and operational ability that UNIFIL had failed to meet. On the eve of Rice's arrival, Livni painted in broad strokes what Israel expected the future arrangements in Lebanon to entail. Rice is scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon and meet Livni in the evening. On Tuesday she is scheduled to meet with Olmert, before going to Ramallah for a visit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. From there she will fly to Rome for an international conference on Lebanon. Livni said that after pushing Hizbullah out of southern Lebanon, Israel's goals included "preserving this achievement so that they don't come back." Beyond pushing Hizbullah back beyond the border, however, she said there was also a need to dismantle the organization since it had rockets that could hit Israel from way north of the Litani River. In addition, she said, a mechanism would have to be developed to ensure that Syria and Iran were not able to rearm Hizbullah, and that a force would need to be established to help Lebanon move its troops southward and dismantle Hizbullah. Livni said the means of achieving these goals were the subject of her conversations Sunday with Steinmeier, Douste-Blazy, and also with Britain's Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Kim Howells. She said this would also certainly be a focus of her talks with Rice, as well as with the foreign minister of Finland, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and the deputy Russian foreign minister who are both expected to visit later in the week. Meanwhile, during the cabinet meeting Olmert deflected questions about the wisdom of a large scale ground incursion into southern Lebanon, saying there was no need to inform the whole world of what was or will be done, because the enemy "was also listening." Amid indications that the Lebanese government wants to negotiate on behalf of Hizbullah, Olmert said that Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora is a partner for dialogue, and reiterated that Israel was fighting Hizbullah, not Lebanon or the Lebanese people. Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky told the cabinet that some 1,000 rockets and 1,200 mortars had been fired on Israeli cities in the north since the fighting began. Kaplinsky said that while the quantity of the attacks has not dropped, there was certainly a decrease in the quality of the strikes. His basis for this comment was that the number of rockets that have fallen in open areas, rather than residential areas, has increased in recent days, an indication that Hizbullah was having difficulty perpetrating attacks. OC Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the cabinet that Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah was surprised by the scope and strength of Israel's reaction to the attack in the north. "He didn't think this would be our response to the kidnapping of two soldiers," he said. At the same time, however, he said that neither Hizbullah's motivation nor its operational capabilities had been broken. "Nasrallah wants to be able to say that he withstood Israel's firepower and international pressure," Yadlin said. Yadlin said that the fighting had helped Israel regain its deterrent power. At the same time, he said he did not know why Hizbullah was not firing rockets that could reach Hadera and even further south, saying that this could be either because they can't fire them, or perhaps because they want to keep them for another day. He also said that while Hizbullah has admitted to losing only seven to 10 men in the fighting, Israel estimates that these numbers are ten times as high.