France to raise issue of kidnapped Israeli soldiers at Paris conference
PARIS - France will raise the fate of kidnapped Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev with Hezbollah representatives in the country for talks between rival Lebanese factions, a French diplomatic source told Haaretz yesterday.
Hezbollah is attending a conference near Paris aimed at breaking the political deadlock in Lebanon, and France aims to take advantage of its first official invitation to Hezbollah to pressure the organization on the issue.
"France sees this as an opportunity to push the case of the kidnapped soldiers, an issue to which it attaches great importance," the source said.
Hezbollah's representative to the talks, Mohammed Fneish, a former water and energy minister in the Lebanese coalition government, yesterday told the French daily Le Figaro that his organization was "prepared to conduct a prisoner swap."
The two-day meeting ending today at La Celle Saint-Cloud west of Paris marks the first time the 14 parties are meeting since a national dialogue conference in November that failed to resolve the country's political and sectarian crisis. Since then, Lebanon's worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war has deepened.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who organized the conference, is trying to succeed where the Arab League and other mediators have failed - in creating a dialogue between the rival factions.
Lebanon's parliament and government are barely functioning. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora refuses to step down and is locked in a fierce power-struggle with the Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian opposition.
Hezbollah almost backed out of the weekend talks, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy's comments this week that the Shi'ite Muslim group is a terrorist organization. Sarkozy's office later clarified his statement.
The main stumbling point in the talks is Hezbollah's demand for an additional ministerial post in Seniora's government - a demand that, if fulfilled, would grant Hezbollah a veto on issues such as the identity of the president to replace the pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud in September and the issue of cooperation with the international court investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
While French sources yesterday downplayed expectations, describing the meeting as "initial talks" with no set agenda, Lebanese representatives expressed optimism.
"The conference could create a positive atmosphere and lead to an opening for a future solution to the conflict," said Fneish, who together with other ministers withdrew from the pro-Hezbollah bloc of Seniora's government last November, sparking the current crisis.
"It could pave the way for breaking the ice and rebuilding trust to resume the dialogue in Beirut," Seniora's representative to the conference, Minister of State Michel Pharaon, told the Lebanese Daily Star.
"It is already a step forward that the meeting is taking place," said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, representing Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. "We shouldn't set ambitions that are too high. But the French have had success where others have not."
The fact that the conference is being held at all is said to be a result of the leadership change at the Elysee Palace last month.
Due to his support for the ruling party of Sa'ad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, the previous French president Jacques Chirac was not seen in Lebanon as a fair mediator.
"France has modified its approach to the Lebanese question, which is now much more balanced. It is no secret that the previous president openly took the side of one camp," Fneish told Le Figaro. "The new administration has learned the lessons of that political experience, which did nothing but exacerbate the situation."