STRELNA, Russia – 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.
The statement 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.
The daylong 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 with starkly different views of the crisis, and for a time, they appeared unlikely to reach consensus. But just before 9 p.m., they settled on language that emphasized areas of agreement, split the difference on disputes and allowed each side to interpret the plan as it chose.