Israel Open to Deal With Lebanon on Land (Israel/Lebanon)
JERUSALEM - Israel offered on Wednesday to start direct peace talks with Lebanon, saying all issues would be negotiable, including a tiny piece of Israeli-held land on the countries' border that Israel has long argued does not belong to Lebanon but that the Lebanese say is theirs.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Israel over the weekend and made a surprise stop in Lebanon on Monday. On her trips, she spoke to both the Israeli and Lebanese governments about Washington's desire to find a solution to the land dispute as a catalyst for solving bigger issues in the region, including strengthening the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a senior Israeli official said, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to this.
However, in the past the Lebanese government has consistently opposed negotiations with Israel, saying the Israelis must first return the disputed piece of land.
Last week, after Mr. Olmert raised the issue of peace with Lebanon, the Lebanese government reiterated its opposition and said Israel must in addition return Lebanese prisoners and provide maps on mines and cluster bombs left over from the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group.
Hezbollah, which considers the disputed piece of land to be Lebanese, gained decisive new powers within Lebanon's government in a political agreement reached last month, making it even less likely that pro-Western forces within Lebanon could push for an agreement on the land.
The offer of talks with Lebanon comes amid intense regional diplomatic activity, including the planned start on Thursday of a six-month truce in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, which the Israeli government confirmed on Wednesday, and the end of a second round of indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria for a comprehensive peace treaty. Israel is also very close to a prisoner swap with Hezbollah.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Mr. Olmert, said the prime minister had spoken of his desire to start talks with Lebanon in an internal Israeli meeting and had decided to make that desire public.
Since Syria has such strong influence in Lebanon, Mr. Olmert argued that the talks with Syria should lead logically to discussions with Lebanon, Mr. Regev said.
The disputed piece of land that will be under negotiation is known as the Shabaa Farms.
When Israel withdrew from the occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations Security Council stated that the withdrawal was complete despite its holding onto the disputed area because Shabaa, the United Nations said, was part of the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel.
But Lebanon and Hezbollah say the land is Lebanese and Syria has not contradicted them. Moreover, Hezbollah has used Israel's hold over Shabaa as a pretext for keeping its men under arms despite United Nations resolutions calling for the disarming of all Lebanese militias.
Hezbollah says that as long as part of the Lebanese homeland is occupied, it needs its weapons because the national army is weak.
But the West, especially the United States and France, wants to reduce the power of Hezbollah, a client of both Syria and Iran, and has been looking for ways to strengthen the pro-Western government of Lebanon.
On Wednesday, Hezbollah officials made clear that they viewed Israel's offer as part of an effort to disarm the group. "If they really want to give us back our land, they can withdraw and implement the security council resolutions," said Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah member of Lebanon's Parliament, referring to a United Nations resolution that calls for the Shabaa issue to be resolved.
Next month, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is due to brief the Security Council on the implementation of Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. In that report, it is likely that he will announce a revised or clarified stand on the sovereignty of Shabaa.
For Israel, the main concern in Lebanon is Hezbollah's increasing power. Israeli military officials say that Hezbollah has far more rockets and far deadlier ones today than it did two years ago when the two fought a month-long war after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border to kidnap and kill Israeli soldiers.
It is unclear whether Shabaa and Hezbollah have been discussed by Israeli and Syrian officials negotiating in their talks, which are being mediated by Turkey.
But the Israelis and Syrians say their latest round of talks went well and there is now the possibility that Mr. Olmert and Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, will find themselves at a table together in France next month. Both men have accepted an invitation to a regional conference there on July 13 on immigration, security and the environment, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France has said they will be seated at the same table.
Resolution 1701 calls on Israel to provide to the United Nations "all remaining maps of land mines in Lebanon in Israel's possession." Israel says it has done so and international officials who monitor the issue confirm it.
They say most of the mines have been cleared using the maps. Cluster bombs are not mentioned in the resolution but are a source of great concern for the southern Lebanese. There, the international officials say, Israel has been less helpful in providing maps and data but it may well be because the bombs were distributed less systematically and Israel has less precise information.
Israel worries that if it yields Shabaa, Hezbollah will come up with another reason why it must keep its arms. Indeed, there are other outstanding issues, including the village of Ghajjar on the border, of which Israel occupies about half.
Von: 19.06.2008, www.nytimes.com, by Ethan Bronner and Robert F. Worth