Bush refuses to press Israel for cease-fire, allies criticize Israeli attacks
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – President Bush refused to press Israel for a cease-fire in Mideast violence Friday, risking a wider breach with world leaders at a weekend summit already confronting crises with Iran and North Korea.Flying here from Germany, Bush called the leaders of Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan to explore ways to end three days of furious fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Turning aside complaints that Israel is using excessive force, Bush rejected a cease-fire plea from Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.”The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said. He said it was unlikely that either side would agree to a cease-fire now.The eruption of Mideast violence moved prominently onto the agenda of the summit beginning Saturday.In contrast with Bush’s stand, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “No hostage-takings are acceptable … but neither is the use of full-scale force in response to these, even if unlawful, actions. We will demand that all sides involved in the conflict immediately stop the bloodshed.”The summit is expected to issue a Mideast declaration, and the United States tried to shape it to be critical of Hezbollah and supportive of Lebanon’s fragile government.French President Jacques Chirac accused Israel of going too far. “One could ask if today there is not a sort of will to destroy Lebanon, its equipment, its roads, its communications,” said Chirac, who has tried to patch relations with the U.S. after disagreements over the Iraq war.Before traveling here from Rome, Italian Premier Romano Prodi said the spiral of violence was making a return to dialogue difficult. “We have regressed 20 years. If we go on like this, all efforts made in the past years will have been in vain,” he said.Bush met with Putin ahead of Saturday’s opening of the annual summit of eight leading industrial powers. Despite political strains, the two leaders shook hands and hugged. “Solid friendship,” Bush said of Putin as they and their wives went to dinner in a villa on the grounds of the opulent 18th century Konstantin Palace. The two leaders also will hold a news conference on Saturday.Bush’s firm support of Israel caused friction with allies as he seeks consensus against Iran and North Korea for their suspected nuclear weapons programs. The European Union has criticized Israel for using “disproportionate” force. From Russia to Spain, leaders voiced concern at the escalation of the conflict.In Washington, Sen. John Warner, the Armed Services Committee chairman, urged the administration to be mindful of how Israel’s response will affect the broader Mideast region.While Israel was “the victim of provocative attacks,” Warner urged the administration to “think through very carefully how Israel’s extraordinary reaction could affect our operations in Iraq and our joint diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.”Seeking Putin’s cooperation on issues ranging from Iran and North Korea to terrorism and rising energy prices, Bush went out of his way to avoid criticizing Russia for what is widely perceived as backsliding on democracy and human rights.In a meeting with social activists unhappy about the rise of authoritarianism, Bush called Putin “my friend” and said “our own government and our country took a while to evolve.” Bush’s muted words were in sharp contrast with Vice President Dick Cheney’s complaint two months ago that Russia was cracking down on religious and political rights and using its energy reserves as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.”In a boon for Russia, the United States appeared to be close to dropping its objections to Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which sets rules for global commerce. The United States is the last country whose support Russia needs for membership. But U.S. officials have insisted on strong assurances in such areas as the protection of intellectual property rights to avoid some of the problems the United States now faces with China.Bush’s national security team was preoccupied with the situation in the Middle East, which was triggered when Hezbollah militants based in Lebanon crossed the border into Israel and captured two soldiers. Already fighting in Gaza to rescue a captured soldier, Israel launched a furious offensive in Lebanon, bombing its air and road links.In his conversation with Lebanon’s prime minister, Bush underscored that Israel has a right to defend itself, said Snow, the White House spokesman. He said Bush also said Israel should try to limit damage and spare civilian lives.Saniora appealed to Bush to press Israel for a cease-fire, but he would not go along.”It is unlikely that either or both parties are going to agree to that at this juncture,” Snow said, “although we certainly hope that we get to a cease-fire soon and we hope that all parties work toward it.”While making appeals to Arab leaders, Bush did not call Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Snow said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others.The White House took heart in a statement by Saudi Arabia that the administration interpreted as saying that Hezbollah had acted irresponsibly and independently of the Lebanese government. The White House hopes Arab League foreign ministers, meeting Saturday, also will express concern about Hezbollah.While summit leaders have been critical of Israel’s use of force, Snow said one area of common ground as the summit works on a Mideast resolution “is that Hezbollah cannot act independently of the government of Lebanon.”Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said Russia was deeply worried “because elements of force, the absence of political measures and the use of tools of pressure that are inadmissible in international practice – the taking of hostages – changes the configuration of the situation in the region.”—Associated Press writers Elena Becatoros and Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.