By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006; A14
STRALSUND, Germany, July 13 -- President Bush and his top diplomats scrambled Thursday night to quell spiraling violence in the Middle East and protect the new democratic government in Lebanon as Israeli forces escalated their strikes.
Bush initially told reporters that "Israel has a right to defend herself," qualifying the statement only with a call to avoid toppling the Lebanese government, which he deems a model for the region.
But as fighting worsened, the White House grew increasingly anxious and issued a late-night appeal to Israel. "We just continue to ask that the Israelis exercise restraint, be concerned about civilian casualties, be concerned of course about civilian infrastructure," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at a hastily called news conference here, 10 hours after Bush's original comments.
Moments later, Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said on CNN that Israel had tried restraint with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon since 2000, only to be targeted once again. "I think they misinterpreted our restraint for the last six years," he said.
The flurry of public statements and private telephone calls Thursday night and the shift in message further complicated the president's diplomacy as he travels to a summit of leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries in Russia this weekend.
Bush had kept a distance from the Lebanon crisis as he focused on persuading summit partners to bring new pressure on Iran and North Korea to give up nuclear programs.
The new conflict threatened to widen divisions with allies. France, Russia and the European Union criticized Israel's actions as disproportionate, while Bush backed what he called Israel's right to respond to abductions of its soldiers and rocket attacks on its soil.
"Every nation must defend herself against terrorist attacks and the killing of innocent life," Bush said at a news conference here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It's a necessary part of the 21st century."
The only reservation he expressed was that Israeli attacks could jeopardize the fledgling democratic government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which does not control the radical Islamic Hezbollah militia that Israel says it is targeting. "Democracy in Lebanon is an important part of laying a foundation for peace in that region," Bush said.
Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley reinforced that message in a later appearance and said they would not judge any specific Israeli act. But they called on Israel to avoid civilian sites and keep border crossings open and to take other precautions. Rice and Hadley both made phone calls to Israeli, European and Arab counterparts and said that Bush would now get involved personally as well.
After talks in Egypt and Jordan, Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch and deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams visited Israel Thursday to communicate U.S. concerns and get a sense of Israel's plans.
Israel has indicated to the United States that it shares its concerns and does not want to target Lebanese government ministries -- at least so far, U.S. officials said.
Rice said there are "very direct links" between Syria and the Hezbollah attacks on Israel and said "it would be unthinkable" that Iran is not also playing a role. She endorsed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's decision to send a peace mission to the region.
The flare-up dominated a day of meetings as Bush visited Merkel's home district in the former East Germany. Bush came here to demonstrate his growing friendship with her, in contrast to the strained relationship he had with her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.
Bush was welcomed with a barrel of herring at a ceremony in front of the gothic Town Hall on Old Market Square in this picturesque Baltic Sea city, founded in 1234. The Germans carefully shielded him from protesters but could not muster the public enthusiasm that has greeted him elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Only a few hundred people made it past security to witness the welcome. Seven rainbow peace flags were hung on a building opposite his stage, and a Greenpeace activist briefly unfurled a large yellow banner from the clock tower that said, "No Nukes, No War, No BUSH!"
The president later was treated to a dinner of wild boar, a menu choice that intrigued him greatly. In his news conference with Merkel, he mentioned it four times. Finally, a German reporter asked, "Apart from the pig, Mr. President, what sort of insights have you been able to gain as regards East Germany?" Bush deflected the question, turning instead to a Middle East issue.
Bush and Merkel presented a united front on Iran in hopes of persuading Russia at the G-8 meeting to join in tough measures. "It's important for Angela and myself to work with Vladimir Putin," the Russian president, "to continue to encourage him to join us in saying to the Iranians loud and clear, 'We're not kidding, it's a serious issue,' " Bush said.
Bush said he would again share with Putin his concerns over the deterioration in Russian democracy but said he did not plan a public confrontation with his host. "Nobody really likes to be lectured a lot, and if you want to be an effective person, what you don't do is scold the person publicly all the time," he said.
Asked about Putin's gibe this week comparing Vice President Cheney's criticism of Russian democracy to an "unsuccessful hunting shot," Bush seemed more amused than offended. "It was pretty clever," he said, chortling. "Actually quite humorous -- not to dis my friend the vice president."
Bush and Putin still hope for an important trade deal to announce at the gathering. Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin reported a breakthrough on banking and insurance issues as the two sides neared an agreement to clear the way for Russia to join the World Trade Organization. "I hope the protocol will be signed before the G-8 summit," Kudrin said.
The two sides remain split over agricultural subsidies and intellectual property rights. "We are continuing to meet and are committed to a commercially strong agreement," said U.S. trade spokesman Sean M. Spicer.
Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow and staff writers Paul Blustein and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.