European Diplomats Target Mideast Conflict

Some European leaders have been calling for international intervention in Lebanon to stop the fighting. European proposals have received mixed responses from Israel and the United States, but the Europeans have the advantage of diplomatic contacts across the Middle East, including Iran.

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The European Union's Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, returns to the Middle East today, as diplomatic efforts to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas continues. His first stop was Jerusalem for talks with Israel's foreign minister. Later he travels to Egypt and the Palestinian territories.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is suggesting the creation of an international force for Lebanon. Several European nations have indicated a willingness to contribute troops.

From Berlin, NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

A possible international stabilization force for southern Lebanon is a hot topic in Europe right now. But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Tuesday, the idea is far from finalized.

Mr. FRANK-WALTER STEINMEIER (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Germany): (Through translator) What its all about right now is to turn the idea into a real proposal that's effective enough to present to the two governments. Beirut and Tel Aviv have to approve. We're nowhere near that.

HARRIS: The U.N. Security Council will discuss the situation tomorrow. Negotiations among Security Council members and Israel in Lebanon would certainly take time, as would the logistics of getting such a force actually on the ground.

That's time in which Israel and Hezbollah could well keep up attacks. Francois Gere directs the French Institute for Strategic Analysis. He says in just a few weeks, international troops might face a very different situation then they would now.

Mr. FRANCOIS GERE (President, French Institute for Strategic Analysis): The Shiite militias and other radical militias are mostly crushed in military terms. They will be very weak and the work of the U.N. forces will not be to ask well-armed and aggressive militias to give back their armaments, but they will have only to make sure that they pick up the remains of the arsenal.

HARRIS: If militias such as Hezbollah are weak enough, he says, a U.N. mission could be strong enough to keep a peace.

But diplomats say everything depends on a force's specific mandate. There is already a U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon. It's been there in various forms since 1978 and is largely considered ineffective.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said in Brussels yesterday he wants to see something different.

Secretary KOFI ANNAN (United Nations Secretary General): I would expect a force that is considerably larger than the 2,000 force that is there. I would expect a force that will have a modified and a different concept of operation and with different capabilities.

HARRIS: Despite general support in Europe to talk about an international force, troop contributions could get tricky. Asked about German soldiers, Foreign Minister Steinmeier only said he can't imagine European nations would refuse to help. France's Foreign Ministry says it all depends on the goal, which could run from stopping hostilities to simply monitoring a ceasefire.

European governments have also been talking to contacts in the region. Richard Whitman, a senior fellow with London's Chatham House think tank, says some European countries are in good positions to communicate with supporters of those fighting Israel.

Mr. RICHARD WHITMAN (Senior Fellow, Chatham House, London): I think it means two things. One is that Europeans have an advantage that they're not the United States. The second advantage is that the Europeans have special kinds of relationships with particular countries in the region which are partly to do with historical connections, but also to do with states that have cultivated relationships with military and intelligence and ties, and so on. And the U.K. and Jordan is an example, France and Lebanon.

HARRIS: The French Prime Minister was in Lebanon yesterday. Germany has mediated a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah in the past, and Germany has significant trade ties with Iran.

Eckhard von Klaeden(ph) is a senior lawmaker and foreign policy expert with Germany's Christian Democratic party.

Mr. ECKHARD VON KLAEDEN (Christian Democratic Union, Germany): Yeah, I'm sure that our government - and I hope that the French government does the same -that they're using every channel they have to mediate, to try to convince the people on the Arabian or the Iranian side to stop the attacks on Israel. But my impression is that deterrence and stopping these attacks is not in their current interest.

HARRIS: Iran, he believes, is not interested in influencing Hezbollah to stop attacks, as the fighting distracts attention from Iran's nuclear program.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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