War in Middle East Puts U.S.-European Warming Trend on Hold

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 29, 2006; A08

PARIS, July 28 -- Just when President Bush was starting to mend the political rift between the United States and Europe, the latest Middle East conflict has reopened the transatlantic divide, on the streets and in government.

Across Europe, leaders and citizens are expressing growing alarm over Washington's refusal to rein in Israel's bombing of Lebanon and appear increasingly fearful of the pro-Hezbollah sentiment unleashed in the Middle East by the daily scenes of destruction and civilian deaths. Many officials said they worry about backlashes in their own restive Muslim and Arab communities.

French President Jacques Chirac called on Friday for the adoption, "as quickly as possible," of a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who again has emerged as Bush's closest European ally but is under increasing pressure from his European counterparts, met with the president in Washington later Friday to push for a quick U.N. resolution to halt the violence.

The differences are straining relations just as the United States is calling on its European allies to supply troops for a possible peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. The Pentagon says the U.S. military is too stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan to participate.

But European powers are reluctant to commit troops to a force that might end up fighting the militia of the radical Islamic group Hezbollah and would, at the least, have to enforce a difficult peace.

"The bottom line is there is a difference between the two sides because of the absolute disaster in Iraq, which has killed any American credibility," said Pierre Lellouche, a member of the French Parliament's foreign affairs committee. "The only way this is going to stop is by occupying south Lebanon," he said, a step European leaders are deeply wary of taking.

Many people here say that if a force is deployed, it must not be led by the NATO alliance. "NATO is perceived, whether we like it or not, as the armed wing of the West," Chirac said in an interview this week with the French newspaper Le Monde. "Consequently, in terms of its image, NATO is not the right organization here."

Several European nations, including France, Spain and Italy, have said they might be willing to contribute to a force, which may need at least 20,000 troops, according to European defense officials. But each nation has imposed strict conditions on its involvement, and others are wavering, especially since Israeli bombing or shelling killed four people at a U.N. observer post this week.

"I think it's understandable that we are reluctant, that we are cautious," Hans-Ulrich Klose, acting chairman of the German Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said in a telephone interview. After members of the committee were summoned from vacation to attend an emergency meeting in Bonn on Thursday, Klose said he considered it "great progress" that most of them did not automatically say no to the suggestion of contributing German troops.

European officials express particular frustration with Bush's refusal to pressure Israel to stop its daily aerial bombardments.

Although they split over the decision to invade Iraq, Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East were united in support of Israel's right to attack Hezbollah after it captured two Israeli soldiers July 12 and subsequently rained rockets on northern Israel.

But with the civilian death toll mounting and the scenes of devastation in Lebanon dominating television broadcasts and newspaper front pages across the globe, European leaders and citizens have become increasingly outraged.

"The Americans . . . supported Israel in their attack of Hezbollah and now they are in a quagmire," said Marc Dasseaux, a waiter in a Paris restaurant. "Their image in the rest of the world is going to be even worse than before."

European leaders are also concerned about the impact of the bombing of Lebanon on their own Muslim communities.

"I'm disgusted by what is happening there," said Hichem Boudahed, 25, the French-born son of Algerian parents. "The Israelis kill civilians, and nobody prevents them from doing it. The Americans want Hezbollah destroyed, therefore they don't care that innocent Lebanese die. Nothing good can come out of this war."

"The backlash in the Middle East and the backlash in our own countries is worrying," said Pierre Moscovici, a vice president of the European Parliament. "We've got to be very careful with that."

Analysts and some officials say the divide between the United States and Europe stems in part from different approaches to the conflict.

"France is keen to restore a strong and sovereign Lebanon," said Jean-Yves Haine, a European security research fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "The U.S. angle is to put Hezbollah in the same box as the global war on terror: Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda are all part of the same basket. The Europeans are more inclined to acknowledge the world is far more complex than this Bush mantra."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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