PM warns Hizbullah may control Lebanon

Biden visits Beirut to show US support for the pro-Western gov't; Assad: Israel obstacle to peace.

netanyahu stresses point 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
netanyahu stresses point 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed concern during his talks in Washington last week that Hizbullah could gain considerable strength in the upcoming Lebanese elections and possibly put together a Shi'ite bloc that would control the country. According to government sources, Netanyahu described Hizbullah control of Lebanon as a "dangerous" and "worrisome" possibility that needs to considered very seriously. This is a scenario that Netanyahu has been warning about in private meetings in recent weeks. Lebanon is scheduled to hold its elections on June 7. US Vice President Joe Biden went to Lebanon on Friday to reinforce US support for the government ahead of the elections. Biden is the highest-ranking US official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years, and the second from the Obama administration in about a month, following in the footsteps of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The attention underscores Washington's concerns about a possible win by Hizbullah. The White House said Biden's visit was meant "to reinforce the United States' support for an independent and sovereign Lebanon." Hizbullah has accused the US of interfering in the election in favor of pro-Western factions. The group said Friday that the visits by Biden and Clinton raised "strong suspicion and amounted to a clear and detailed interference in Lebanon's affairs." US officials have said they would review assistance to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, a warning clearly aimed at Hizbullah and its allies. Washington has provided Lebanon with more than $1 billion in assistance since 2006, including $410 million to the military and police. Biden flew into Beirut airport from Kosovo, closing a three-day tour of the southeastern European region that also took him to Bosnia and Serbia. Lebanese military helicopters hovered over the Lebanese capital to provide security as a motorcade of about dozen vehicles sped through the city center on its way to the presidential palace in the suburban hills of Baabda. During the brief visit, Biden met with President Michel Suleiman, a neutral former army commander elected a year ago by consensus after a nearly two-year political crisis that almost drove the country into another conflict like the 1975-90 civil war. Biden's visit was seen as a boost to the standing of the Lebanese president and military. Both could play a pivotal role in stabilizing the country after the elections and be partners the US could continue to work with should the Hizbullah-led coalition win. The situation in Lebanon is expected to be a major item on the agenda when Netanyahu travels to France in the beginning of June for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Although no date for the visit has been set, there is some talk of it occurring on June 3 or 4, which would place Netanyahu in Paris when US President Barack Obama gives his much-touted address to the Arab world in Cairo. From the Egyptian capital, Obama is scheduled to go to France for D-Day commemorations. Meanwhile, just days after Netanyahu declared publicly for the first time that he was prepared for negotiations with Syria without preconditions, Syrian President Bashar Assad responded Saturday by threatening "more resistance." Speaking Saturday in Damascus at a meeting of the foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, Assad called Israel the "major obstacle" to peace in the Middle East. He also blamed it for the breakdown of indirect talks through Turkey that were held last year. "The failure of the peace process is a blatant demonstration that Israel is the major obstacle to peace," he said in an opening speech. "Our experience with Israel during indirect peace negotiations mediated by Turkey is further proof of this." The Syrian leader said Damascus continued to consider peace a "strategic goal that must be reached one day," and he blamed Israel for the lack of progress since the launching of the internationally-sponsored peace process in the early 1990s. "The failure of the process so far showed blatantly that Israel is the greatest obstacle facing the hope for peace," Assad said. The Syrian leader went on to warn that the failure of negotiations would lead to more acts of rightful "resistance" against Israel. "Failure of political efforts to regain legitimate rights will give the resistance the right to carry out its duty in order to regain those rights," he concluded. Senior government sources in Jerusalem slammed Assad for his hypocrisy. "Someone who has chosen to align himself with the most extreme, violent, anti-peace faction - Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas - should not be preaching to others about moving the peace process forward," one official said. "When your friends are [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and [Hamas head Khaled] Mashaal, one really has to question if you really want peace," the official said. On Friday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem responded to recent calls to renew peace negotiations with Jerusalem by saying that such talks were worthless in the absence of an Israeli promise to return the Golan Heights. Moallem said Friday on Syrian state television that "an Israeli guarantee to withdraw from the Golan Heights is... necessary" for peace. "If Israel will not honor these needs, there is no point to conduct baseless peace talks," Moallem said. Negotiations will not succeed if Israel does not show a real intention to achieve peace and without American involvement, Moallem said, adding that Damascus would not return to talks that would only "waste time." On Monday in Washington, and again on Wednesday when he landed in Israel, Netanyahu announced he was prepared to immediately renew peace negotiations with Syria without any preconditions. AP contributed to this report.