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Analysis: U.S., EU rift seen over Mideast crisis

JERUSALEM – A rift is emerging between the European Union and the United States over whether Israel should cease its offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas.

The Europeans fear mounting civilian casualties will play into the hands of militants and weaken Lebanon’s democratically elected government. The Bush administration, while noting these concerns, is giving Israel a tacit green light to take the time it needs to neutralize the Shiite militant group.

The mixed message could help Israel in its mission to destroy Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon and stop the guerrillas’ deadly rocket fire on Israel. But Islamic hardliners and terrorist groups could be long-term winners, using the vivid television imagery of the death and destruction in Lebanon to win popularity and promote their jihads.

The United States, the country that holds the most sway with Israel, has said the Jewish state has the right to defend itself and that a “meaningful” cease-fire is needed – presumably one that includes the disarming of Hezbollah.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the administration opposed a return to the situation before the outbreak of violence. “A cease-fire that would leave intact a terrorist infrastructure is unacceptable,” he said.

By contrast, the EU has called for a cease-fire now and said Israel’s “disproportionate” use of force is not only threatening Lebanon’s democratic government but providing the fuel that extremist groups such as Hezbollah need to win public support.

After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday, Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, condemned the July 12 Hezbollah raid that led to Israel’s offensive and urged the guerrillas to immediately release the two soldiers they captured.

But he also called for a cease-fire and said diplomatic efforts to end the crisis should continue.

Asked if Israel’s attacks in Lebanon were disproportionate, Solana said that if people think the offensive is causing “more suffering on the people than is necessary in order to obtain an objective,” it could make it harder win their hearts and minds in the battle against terrorists.

However, Livni said Israel’s offensive is not just a reaction to Hezbollah’s raid but a response to the broad threat of Hezbollah to Israel’s security. From that perspective, she said, Israel’s airstrikes on Lebanon are proportionate.

Israel is betting that its campaign will deliver a decisive blow not only to Hezbollah but to radical Islamic forces throughout the region. So far, though, the widespread Israeli airstrikes appear to have increased the credibility and popularity of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has discussed the crisis by telephone with Olmert and Solana. But Rice, who was expected to visit the region this weekend, has refrained from setting a date, leading some to speculate that the U.S. wanted to give Israel more time to pursue its offensive.


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