By Peter Baker and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 17, 2006; A09
STRELNA, Russia, July 16 -- President Bush and other world leaders put aside their differences Sunday and crafted a plan to stop the fighting in the Middle East, calling on Islamic militias to halt their rocket attacks on Israel and on Israeli forces to end their military response.
The plan, hammered out after hours of intense negotiations at the Group of Eight summit, called for "an immediate end to the current violence" and raised the prospect of an international security force along the Israeli-Lebanese border to separate fighting forces, a potentially significant escalation of outside involvement in the historically volatile region.
The statement by the leaders of the world's leading industrial nations placed blame for the intensifying crisis squarely on the "extremist forces" of Hamas and Hezbollah, just as Bush has done from the beginning. But it also went further than he had been willing to go in demanding that Israel "exercise utmost restraint" and "avoid casualties among innocent civilians" in its retaliatory strikes in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.
The leaders demanded that Hamas and Hezbollah return unharmed Israeli soldiers they have seized in recent weeks and stop shelling Israeli towns, while telling Israel to call off its military operations, withdraw forces quickly from Gaza, and release Palestinian ministers and legislators arrested since the latest wave of conflict began last month. U.S. officials said afterward that the plan envisioned Israel taking those actions only after Hamas and Hezbollah complied, but the statement did not set an order.
The day-long talks that led to the agreement overshadowed the G-8's scheduled agenda on energy, disease and education, demonstrating the deepening alarm over the rising violence in Israel and Lebanon. "We indeed are witnesses to a veritable explosion," said French President Jacques Chirac. "This is a situation of grave, grave concern to us, which occupies us here."
The leaders arrived at Konstantinovsky Palace with starkly different views of the crisis, and a Russian official predicted talks would last all night. But just before the leaders adjourned to a 9 p.m. dinner at the czarist seaside palace near St. Petersburg, they settled on language that emphasized areas of agreement, split the difference on disputes and allowed each side to interpret it as it chose.
Bush has steadfastly supported Israel, saying it has a right to defend itself after Hamas and Hezbollah guerrillas captured some Israeli soldiers and killed others, while firing hundreds of rockets into Israel. Chirac, on the other hand, has criticized Israel for what he sees as an excessive response that has included bombing airports, roads, bridges, electricity stations and other civilian targets in Lebanon, where Hezbollah operates free of government control.
During the discussion, Bush found support from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while Chirac's position was largely shared by Russan President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper rounded out the G-8 sessions.
But Bush aides said afterward that the leaders found common ground in their broad sense of the situation and did not bicker much over the differences. "There wasn't much of an argument at all, much of a discussion at all, about who is responsible," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said. "But most of the focus was on trying to end the violence, end the fighting, restore calm."
"We achieved satisfactory compromise language that is extremely balanced," said Putin, who is chairing the summit. Putin also said Russia was working to persuade Hezbollah to release the Israelis. "We are using all channels to make efforts to free your soldiers -- all channels," he told an Israeli journalist.
The two-page statement traced "the root cause" of crisis to attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas, echoing language Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been using since arriving in Russia for the summit.
"The root cause of the problems in the region is the absence of a comprehensive Middle East peace," it said. "The immediate crisis results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region. These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider chaos."
At the same time, it also insisted that Israel pull back and included demands that U.S. officials have not made, particularly the release of Palestinian officials. "It is also critical that Israel, while exercising the right to defend itself, be mindful of the strategic and humanitarian consequences of its actions," it said.
Still, the statement skipped around some of the most pointed language used by the leaders in recent days. While assailing "those that support" Hezbollah guerrillas, it did not identify them, despite U.S. pressure to name Iran and Syria. Chirac and Putin resisted that, with the Russian leader saying there was not enough evidence to assume their complicity. Neither did the statement use the word "disproportionate" to describe Israel's actions, as Chirac has, or the word "cease-fire" to describe the G-8 leaders' goal.
Each side insisted it meant those things anyway. At a news conference, Chirac said that the plan stated "clearly our determination to put an end to this escalation" and that it called for a "lasting cease-fire" in Lebanon and Gaza. He said the G-8 leaders "expressed our grave reservations as to the disproportionate nature of Israel's provoked response."
Burns, briefing reporters traveling with Bush, disputed Chirac's use of the word "disproportionate."
"That word's not used in the statement," he said. Nor was "cease-fire," even though it described the goal as "an immediate end to the current violence." The distinction, Burns said, is the "necessary precondition" for Israel standing down would be Hamas and Hezbollah backing down first. "It's not a cease-fire," Burns said. "There was no push for a cease-fire this weekend."
Chirac pushed for the idea of an international force, and the statement called on the U.N. Security Council to examine the possibility. Burns said that did not necessarily mean traditional peacekeeping troops, saying the language was deliberately vague to keep options open.
Although the summit has been essentially overtaken by the Middle East strife, Putin tried to keep attention on his chosen topics, particularly energy security.
But the list of priorities released by the leaders did little to address investor uncertainties about Russia's extensive oil and gas industries, which are increasingly coming under state control.
On one case often cited as an example of concern to foreign businesses, Putin was asked about William F. Browder, whose company is Russia's largest foreign institutional investor and who was denied entry back into the country last year. Putin said he did not know the reason behind the decision but said he imagined Browder must have violated the law.