Bush Declines to Call for Israeli Cease-Fire

By Peter Baker and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 15, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG, July 14 -- President Bush appealed to Arab leaders on Friday to help defuse the widening conflict in the Middle East but declined to press Israel for a cease-fire as many world leaders condemned the country's military strikes in southern Lebanon.

At the United Nations, the Security Council heard pleas from Lebanon to establish a cease-fire but took no action as a U.N. peace delegation was dispatched to the region.

Addressing the 15-nation council, Lebanese diplomat Nouhad Mahmoud said Israel's airstrikes were intended to bring Lebanon "to its knees."

Israel U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, countered that Lebanon had brought the crisis on itself by failing to abide by a Security Council resolution requiring it to assert its control over southern Lebanon and disarm the radical Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. Lebanon, he said, "chose to succumb to terror rather than vanquish it."

While Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters traded further blows, the crisis roiled capitals around the world, and the heavy criticism of Israel underlined divisions between Bush and other international leaders. Although Bush called for restraint, he has defended what he calls Israel's right to defend itself. In contrast, European and Arab leaders have denounced what they deem a lopsided response to Palestinian and Hezbollah provocations.

"One can ask oneself whether there isn't a sort of desire to destroy Lebanon," French President Jacques Chirac, who will be among the leaders meeting with Bush here, said in a television interview. "I find, honestly, like most Europeans, that the reactions are completely disproportionate." He added that he also considered Hezbollah guerrillas "completely irresponsible" for firing rockets at Israel.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Israel was "making a mistake" in striking Lebanon because "it won't bring anything other than an escalation of violence." The Vatican said it "deplores right now the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation." Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian chief, called Israel's attacks a "violation of international law," adding, "You are supposed to do something to the armed group. You are not supposed to hurt the children of people who have nothing to do with this."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting the Group of Eight summit, already is moving to put the fighting on the agenda as draft statements were being written. "We will press all the parties to immediately stop the bloodshed," he said.

The summit of the world's leading industrial countries was supposed to be a forum for Bush to rally countries to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program. But the unity that Bush had been trying to build on the issue might unravel among disagreements over Israel.

On Friday, Bush called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to confer on the crisis. Siniora pleaded with Bush to tell Israel to halt military actions and issued a statement saying the president would try to stop attacks on civilians.

But White House officials said Bush made no promise to pressure Israel to stop its military actions altogether and that he pointedly did not call Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leaving that conversation to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"He believes that the Israelis have a right to protect themselves," Bush spokesman Tony Snow said, "and also that we think it's important that in doing that they try to limit as much as possible so-called collateral damage, not only to facilities but also to human lives." Snow added, "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel."

Mubarak and Abdullah issued a joint statement denouncing Israel's actions as a violation of international law: "The two leaders condemned the widescale military operations by Israeli forces in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and called for an immediate end to attacks on civilians and the targeting of vital Lebanese and Palestinian installations, utilities and infrastructure."

Saudi Arabia, however, faulted Hezbollah. "A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside [Lebanon] and those behind them without recourse to the legal authorities and consulting and coordinating with Arab nations," a Saudi statement said.

A senior administration official said the situation could spark a significant change in the region by forcing the Muslim world to turn against Syria and Iran for sponsoring Hezbollah. "It seems to be more and more quarterbacked and directed out of Damascus and Tehran," the official said. "It's clarifying the choices for people."

Lynch reported from the United Nations.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company