UNITED NATIONS, AP – Dealing a blow to a U.S.-backed strategy for Lebanon, France has refused to participate in a meeting of nations that could send troops to help monitor a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, even though it may join — and possibly even lead — such a force.
The French refusal to take part in the meeting, set to take place at the U.N. on Thursday, reflects a wide divergence in views between Washington and Paris about how to impose a lasting peace after three weeks of war between Israel and Hezbollah.
France doesn’t even want to talk about sending peacekeepers until fighting halts and the U.N. Security Council agrees to a wider framework for lasting peace. The U.S., which had sought the troop-contributor meeting in the first place, wants an end to the fighting to come only as part of a larger series of simultaneous moves that would include the peacekeepers.
France’s decision seemed to contradict Bush administration claims Tuesday that diplomats were making progress toward establishing an international peacekeeping force for Lebanon. Officials said no quick cease-fire seemed likely, but that the Security Council could come to a deal soon.
“I think we are making good progress,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “We believe that we are going to be able to have some action in the Security Council in the coming days, and hopefully this week.”
But France still believes it is too early to talk about troops for a new force and will not attend Thursday’s meeting, a spokesman for France’s U.N. Mission said late Tuesday. The reason for France’s opposition remains unchanged, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity because there has been no official announcement.
A visit to New York by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a meeting of foreign ministers that had been expected this week also seems less likely, though many officials, including Rice, have said they are still hopeful that a resolution can be agreed upon soon.
Diplomats are discussing a French-proposed draft Security Council resolution calling for the creation of a multinational peacekeeping force and a new buffer zone void of either Israeli troops or Hezbollah militants — but only after a halt in fighting. Because of its disagreement with France, the U.S. has serious problems with the draft and is expected to announce amendments soon.
France’s announcement came despite calls from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for governments debating Lebanon’s future to put aside their differences to solve the conflict.
The troop-contributor meeting had initially been planned for Monday but was postponed. Yet Annan emerged from a breakfast with the ambassadors from the five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — on Tuesday morning with the announcement that the meeting was on. It will be chaired by the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno.
Annan wants nations to lay the groundwork for a force, apparently so it can be deployed as quickly as possible once a political framework to end the fighting in Lebanon is settled.
“He did ask them to set those differences aside and move along quickly on the question of a mandate for the force and the formation of the force, and who’s going to be able to give what and which countries will be able to contribute,” his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.
France, Italy, Germany, Ireland and Turkey have said they are considering joining a multinational force, and France, which has taken a prominent role in diplomacy over Lebanon, could lead it.
The Bush administration provided few details about what progress there was toward a diplomatic solution. The White House said an immediate halt to the bloody fighting “doesn’t seem to be in the cards.”
“Neither side is headed that way,” said presidential spokesman Tony Snow. “What the president is working on and what our allies are working on are providing those conditions for a sustainable cease-fire.”
While there is wide disagreement over whether to try to compel Israel to accept an immediate cease-fire — the United States supports Israel in taking more time to pummel Hezbollah arsenals — there is consensus building around a peacekeeping force that would be more potent than the currently deployed U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which was created in 1978 with a weak mandate.