Middle East conflict muscles way into Group of Eight agenda

ST PETERSBURG — Middle East conflict muscled its way onto the Group of Eight (G-8) agenda on Saturday, setting the United States, a strong backer of Israel, against those who say the Jewish state has been too violent.

US President George W. Bush has called on Israel to avoid civilian casualties but has refused to tell it to halt its bombardment of Lebanon, which G-8 partner France and the European Union have called an excessive response to Hizbollah attacks.

“This is a very serious situation and no one should pretend otherwise. This is a situation we have to calm down and we have to calm down quickly,” said a spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“We understand that there were provocations against Israel, but we believe the use of force by Israel was disproportionate,” said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The rising death toll from Israel’s four-day offensive and Islamic group Hizbollah’s rocket attacks deep into northern Israel has overshadowed the formal agenda of the meeting of the world’s leading industrialised nations.

Russia, first-time host, had wanted to focus on security of energy supplies. But the leaders of Japan, Russia, Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy, France and the United States will instead discuss divisions over the Middle East, Iran and trade.

At a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush firmly blamed Middle East violence on Hizbollah fighters. The Kremlin leader agreed but asked for a “balanced” response from Israeli forces.

Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told reporters the Hizbollah attacks have “threatened to plunge the region into violence”.

Russia and US

Diplomats have begun work on a statement on the Middle East crisis but strains were quickly visible among the leaders.

France called on the G-8 to agree that violence would not resolve the situation, a formulation at odds with Bush’s strong support for Israel. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi cast doubt on whether a common G-8 position could be agreed.

“The president [Jacques Chirac] is expecting everybody to unite around the goal of de-escalating the situation,” French presidential spokesman Jerome Bonnafont told reporters.

The summit began on Saturday with dinner for the leaders at the glittering Constantine palace just outside Russia’s second city. Formal sessions are on Sunday and Monday.

Earlier, Bush and Putin put on a show of harmony by resurrecting an old proposal for averting “nuclear terrorism” and endorsing a plan to halt the spread of atomic arms.

On Iran the summit appeared certain to struggle for a common position with Russia opposing for now any talk of UN sanctions against the Islamic republic over its nuclear programme.

Bush said he had common ground with Putin on Iran, though the Kremlin leader sidestepped a question on sanctions.

Some hope persists world leaders will send a signal of willingness to abandon fiercely-held negotiating positions, thereby ending a deadlock on global trade talks.

“We are ready to make an effort to get a deal if the others can also make that effort,” EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters.

Democracy concerns

Bush avoided a public spat over Putin’s record on democracy which has been criticised by others in the US administration.

“I fully understand… that there will be a Russian-style democracy. I don’t expect Russia to look like the United States.

As Vladimir pointedly reminded me last night, they have a different history, different traditions,” he said.

“We of course don’t want to have a democracy like the one in Iraq, to be honest,” quipped Putin, a former KGB spy known for his dry sense of humour, after Bush cited Iraq as a country where the United States is promoting democratic freedoms.

Putin’s main hope for the summit is to display his nation’s new-found self-confidence as it rides an economic boom as a top oil and gas exporter. It also wants to rid itself of the image of being a poor outsider in the group.

The goodwill exuded by Bush offset Russia’s disappointment at failing to get a deal with Washington that would pave the way for Russian entry into the World Trade Organisation.

The annual G-8 meeting has in the past drawn sometimes violent anti-globalisation protests. But tight restrictions and heavy policing ensured that in St Petersburg they were a far cry from those at previous summits.

Around 300 communist and leftists, heavily outnumbered by Russian police, marched through the city centre.

There were no serious clashes, but after scuffles police detained more than 20 protesters who veered off the set route.

A mere 100 anti-globalisation protesters turned out for a rally in a suburban sports stadium, far from the G-8 proceedings, that authorities had made available to them.

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