G8 consensus on Mideast sorely needed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am

The annual G8 summit of world leaders seems fated to have its agenda hijacked by crises. Last year it was the July 7 terrorist bombings of the London Underground during the gathering in Scotland. This year the presidents and prime ministers find themselves having to deal with a dangerous escalation of conflict in the Middle East.

Israel's ferocious military response to the kidnapping of three soldiers on its borders with Lebanon and Gaza, and a Hezbollah leader's declaration of open war, have overshadowed a formidable G8 agenda, including nuclear proliferation issues with Iran and North Korea, global terrorism, faltering world trade talks, global warming and energy security.

The timing of the summit is fortuitous, given the unpredictable and potentially calamitous consequences of the widening Middle East conflict and the lack of consensus on how to approach it. Lebanon failed at a United Nations Security Council debate on Friday to secure a call for a ceasefire to halt the Israeli offensive. Rifts among the world powers over the Middle East were exposed. American allies have condemned the ferocity of the attacks, in contrast to Washington's support for Israel and calls for restraint.

The world leaders, who include four of the five permanent members of the security council, must seize the opportunity this weekend to put these differences aside and support a call for all parties - Israel, Hezbollah and the ruling Hamas in Palestine - to accept a ceasefire and withdraw behind their borders. This should be backed up by a firm proposal for talks aimed at resolving the conflict peacefully.

The latest development represents a worrying turn of events in a deeply troubled region. The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips for the release of Arab prisoners, and rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, are operations of the militant arms of Hamas and Hezbollah. But Hamas is now the elected government of the West Bank and Gaza, and Hezbollah is represented in parliament and in government in Lebanon. These actions fall short of standards consistent with their claims to recognition.

As a test of the coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, they bear the mark of acquiescence from Iran and Syria.

Nonetheless, Israel's sustained and devastating response has rightly been condemned as disproportionate to the provocation and loosely targeted at the objective of recovering its soldiers. The onslaught on Lebanon has killed scores of people, but few if any connected with the Hezbollah guerillas who attacked Israel across the border on Wednesday, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two others.

The bombing of roads, bridges, electricity stations and the airport, the blockade and the warning to evacuate civilians from parts of Beirut have revived memories of the Israeli invasion and occupation of 1982 aimed at destroying the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

These actions go beyond Israel's legitimate right to defend itself. They underline the urgent need for a consensus among world leaders to help bring the carnage to a halt. That is the first step towards steering Israel and the Palestinians back towards the so-called road map to peace, which calls for a negotiated settlement of a border between the two.

None of this diminishes the importance of the remainder of the issues facing this weekend's summit. But it enhances the pivotal role of President Hu Jintao , the leader of a nation with increasing influence among Arab states and a friend of North Korea and Iran.

Mr Hu's talks with President George W. Bush are likely to include North Korea's refusal to return to stalled talks on its nuclear programme, and Iran's failure to respond to a package of incentives to abandon uranium enrichment. This will be a test of Beijing's reluctance, shared with Moscow, to back tough sanctions against the two nations.