UN Middle East envoy calls for united effort to defuse ‘deep regional crisis’

Vijay Nambiar

Regretting that his meetings with leaders in Lebanon and Israel found “serious obstacles” to a comprehensive ceasefire in the violence-racked region, a top United Nations envoy today called on the Security Council to unite in the coming days to dramatically reduce the devastating toll on civilians, and to quickly develop the framework for a political solution.

“The Secretary-General and the Secretariat are working on the political, peacekeeping and humanitarian fronts to respond to this deep regional crisis,” Vijay Nambiar, who led a team of veteran United Nations officials for wide-ranging talks in the region under the auspices of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told the Council at the opening of a daylong open meeting on the explosion of violence.

Outlining the extent of the destruction, which had already claimed the lives of over 300 Lebanese and 34 Israelis while injuring over 500 Lebanese and approximately 200 Israelis, he said: “We would welcome a united stance by the Security Council.”

Over the course of his 14 to 19 July mission, which included UN envoy to Middle East Alvaro de Soto and Terje Roed-Larsen, Mr. Nambiar said he met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, as well as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a number of other senior Israeli officials, along with a range of regional leaders.

He recounted that Prime Minister Siniora said that he was not in a position to negotiate a ceasefire himself as he had no involvement in the initiation or the continuation of Hizbollah’s attacks, which his Government had disavowed. He maintained that Israel’s activities were making it more difficult to fulfil Security Council demands to extend his Government’s control over its territory.

Israeli leaders stressed Hizbollah’s responsibility for initiating the conflict and broadening it through its rocket attacks against Israeli population centres. They made it clear, he said, that Israel had decided that military operations would continue until Hizbollah was seriously weakened.

Despite such difficult negotiating positions, Mr. Nambiar saw two vital political goals for the international community in the days ahead, the first of which is to secure, urgently, some form of cessation of hostilities. “This is essential so that the captives are protected and released, humanitarian access is assured, civilian casualties are dramatically reduced, and the political space is opened to negotiate a full and durable ceasefire.”

The second is to develop quickly the elements of a political framework that would pave the way for such a ceasefire, some of which had been suggested by Secretary-General Annan yesterday in his briefing to the Council and included a strengthened international peacekeeping force.

“A political package is needed that gives the Governments of Israel and Lebanon confidence that the horrors each country is now enduring will not be repeated,” he said, proposing that such a package should ensure the end of the Hizbollah threat against Israel, and the full respect by all parties of the Lebanese Government’s sovereignty and control.

Turning to the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, where at least 147 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed in violence following the capture of an Israeli soldier on the Gaza border on 25 June, Mr. Nambiar said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was particularly concerned with the need for a political path forward.

In their discussions, he said President Abbas felt it was important to “de-link” the crisis in Lebanon from the crisis in the Palestinian areas, since he thought that the current violence in the country to the north represented, among other factors, an attempt by non-Palestinian extremists to “hijack leadership” on the Palestinian issue.

“He left us with a powerful impression that the international community has work to do in assisting the parties to develop a credible political framework that can show the path towards what the G8 calls the root cause of the problems of the region - the absence of a comprehensive Middle East peace,” Mr. Nambiar said, referring to the group of dominant industrial countries who recently concluded a summit in St. Petersburg.

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