Senior U.S. Official: Developments in Lebanon Are 'Positive'

Shmuel Rosner
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Shmuel Rosner

WASHINGTON - Far removed from the military and political squabbles rocking Israel, something has changed in the way Washington leaders are assessing the outcome of the Lebanon war.

The war is no longer seen as a "failure," but as an "achievement" and even a "success." The terms are still cautious, but American diplomats are describing the progress in Lebanon optimistically.

A senior State Department official told Haaretz on Wednesday that U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's promises to change the status quo were fast becoming a reality. There is a chance to change the atmosphere, he said.

This sentiment was echoed in Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's talks with Bush and Rice and, to a certain extent, with Vice President Richard B. Cheney.

On Wednesday morning, before Livni began her meetings, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch spoke optimistically about the war in the Senate Foreign Committee.

He told the senators that the new rules laid down by the Security Council in Resolution 1701 "would change the situation in Lebanon and the region for the better and would more than meet our standard of no return to the status quo ante."

The senior official said the way the Security Council handled the issue so far indicated that other resolutions would also be promoted in the next few weeks, including the release of Israeli prisoners of war.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "I was really encouraged by the seriousness with which governments are pressing ahead with implementation [of resolutions.]"

In her meetings in Washington, Livni discussed the prisoners' release and an arms embargo to prevent Hezbollah from rearming itself. She also spoke about the open Syrian-Lebanon border, and the Americans said this problem, which they also consider crucial, could also be solved.

The U.S. House Committee of International Relations said at the beginning of the week that it would not permit transferring support funds to rehabilitate Lebanon as long as the border problem remained unsolved.

An official in the State Department said this week that Israel had accomplished a lot since the UN resolution. He cited Israel's cooperation in lifting the blockade on Lebanon as an example.

The Americans told Livni they wanted the Lebanese and the international force to complete their deployment as soon as possible, to facilitate Israel's complete pullout from Lebanon.

Officials spoke with caution about the long-term goal of completely disarming Hezbollah. At a joint news conference with Livni on Wednesday, Rice spoke of the need to "fully implement" the Security Council resolution, referring also to the disarmament.

Israeli diplomats in the Foreign Ministry and Mission to the UN sound quite optimistic and pleased with the relatively speedy mobilization and deployment of the international force in Lebanon. Israel even decided to remove its objection to the deployment of troops from Indonesia, which does not recognize Israel.

Brigadier General Mark T. Kimmitt, U.S. Central Command's deputy director for strategy, who is about to be appointed deputy assistant Defense Secretary for the Middle East and Central Asia, told Haaretz that the bolstered UNIFIL force could be a stabilizing element in south Lebanon.

However, despite the cautious optimism in the administration and UN, many administration officials, especially in the Defense Department, are still castigating Israel for its conduct and for its meager achievements in the war.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials believe much of the criticism derives from certain politicians' excessively high expectations at the beginning of the war. Some see the administration's positive tone as the need of senior administration officials to find retroactive justification for their support of the war. Had the war been a failure, it would have been their failure, as well.

Still, developments show that there are quite a few reasons for the Americans and Israelis to be pleased. There is an overall change for the better in the international community's attitude and a real awakening regarding Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said.

Livni met several European ministers before coming to Washington and will meet others in New York next week. Most of them appear to agree that neutralizing Hezbollah is vital for Lebanon's stabilization. It does not follow, however, that the parties agree on how exactly to accomplish this goal.

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