US puts best face on Lebanon deal

May 21, 2008 8:46:02 AM PDT
The Bush administration sought Wednesday to put a positive spin on a deal between Lebanon's feuding factions, saying it is key to short-term stability even though it gives the militant Hezbollah movement more power. "We view this agreement as a positive step towards resolving the current crisis," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. "We call upon all Lebanese leaders to implement this agreement in its entirety."

At the same time, administration officials were cool to an announcement by Israel and Syria that they had resumed indirect peace talks and made clear the U.S. remains focused on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Earlier, in a hastily convened news conference called to discuss the developments, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East acknowledged that the Arab-mediated Lebanon agreement, which boosts Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah and gives it veto power over any government decision, was imperfect.

But he welcomed it as a "necessary and positive" step to end violence and the country's political crisis, which has paralyzed Lebanon for the past 18 months, blocking the selection of a new president, and sparking deadly street fighting earlier this month when Hezbollah gunmen took over parts of Beirut.

"This is not a perfect solution, but it is much better than the alternatives," said David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "It's a necessary and positive step," he said, adding quickly: "It's not for us to decide how Lebanon does this."

He said the United States wanted to see the agreement implemented as quickly as possible with the election of a president, the formation of a new government and revisions to the country's electoral law ahead of a parliamentary vote set for next year.

But Welch stressed that Washington supports the majority in the Lebanese government and noted that there were Hezbollah members in the previous government with whom the U.S. had no dealings. The same principle would apply now, although under the deal, Hezbollah will have 11 seats in the Cabinet out of 30.

And, he played down the implications of the effusive praise for the deal offered by Iran and Syria immediately after it was announced in Qatar, which raised fears the two U.S. foes may now have even more influence in Lebanon.

"There are a number of governments who acclaimed this," Welch said. "If Syria and Iran have supported that, then perhaps they will continue to exercise a more constructive role in Lebanon. We would like to see that. It would come as a bit of a surprise to us, but results are what count."

Rice's brief three-paragraph statement did not address the announcement of Israeli-Syrian peace contacts, which the Bush administration has expressed reservations about in the past.

Welch said that while the United States wanted Israel to reach peace deals with all of its neighbors, U.S. officials believed prospects were better at the moment on the Israeli-Palestinian track, with which they have been consumed since the November launch of the Annapolis process that aims for an agreement by the end of President Bush's term in office.

He said that both Israel and Turkey, which is mediating the indirect talks, had informed the United States of the discussions but that U.S. officials had played no role and did not intend to. "We think the expansion of the circle of peace would be a good thing," Welch said. "It's a good thing and we hope it progresses, but where we're making the effort right now is on the Palestinian track."

He noted that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, brokered by the U.S., would continue to be the priority for Bush's Middle East policy.

"Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians offer special promise and we're working to conclude an agreement by the end of the year on this," he said. "Those parties are in direct negotiation."

"Direct negotiations are always the best way to proceed."