Israel doesn’t expect another fight with Hizbollah soon — PM

news5.jpgOCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel’s prime minister said Thursday he did not expect another fight with Hizbollah soon, amid stalled talks on a timetable for the Jewish state to withdraw its remaining troops from Lebanon.

“The chances that Hizbollah would be persuaded to mount in the short term a major military confrontation such as we saw this summer are very slight,” Premier Ehud Olmert said in an interview on public radio.

“The reality has changed and Hizbollah knows it,” Olmert said in the interview, which came more than a month and a half after a UN-brokered ceasefire ended a 34-day war with the Shiite group.

“But I do not exclude the possibility that the Iranians and to a certain extent the Syrians will try to manipulate Hizbollah, so that we should expect to be tested,” he added.

In the first weeks following the August 14 ceasefire, Israeli officials were quoted as saying that the Jewish state should prepare for an inevitable “second round” with Hizbollah.

Despite a month of intensive bombardment of the Hizbollah positions in Lebanon, Israel failed to achieve the main objectives it had set for the offensive — freeing two soldiers seized by Hizbollah and stopping the fighters from launching rockets into the Jewish state.

Olmert’s comments came amid ongoing talks between officers from the Israeli and Lebanese armies and UN forces on hammering out a timetable for Israel to complete its withdrawal of hundreds of troops still in south Lebanon.

The main snags holding up the withdrawal are disagreements over how UN peacekeepers and Lebanese army troops would deal with armed Hizbollah fighters, officials said.

Israel’s military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, said Wednesday that the Jewish state would not fully withdraw until an agreement was reached.

Israel has twice pushed back the date for withdrawing its remaining several hundred troops from south Lebanon. Earlier this week, Israeli officials said they hoped the troops would be withdrawn by end of this week or beginning of next.

On Wednesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora called on Israel to pull its troops out of his country immediately or risk jeopardising the current ceasefire.

“In order for the current cessation of hostilities to be sustained, Israel must withdraw without further delay from the position it still occupies within Lebanon and must stop its violation of Lebanese territory,” Siniora told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

A senior military official told AFP Thursday that the Lebanese government is considering filing a complaint with the UN Security Council over Israel’s failure to withdraw.

“The Lebanese government is looking into filing a complaint with the Security Council over Israel’s violations of and failure to comply with terms of Resolution 1701,” he said on condition of anonymity.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 put an end to monthlong fierce hostilities between Israel and Hizbollah and called for Israel’s pullout from Lebanon and the disarming of all factions.

Separately, Olmert repeated warnings from his chief- of-staff the previous day that Israel would react forcefully if any armed Hizbollah supporters tried to stage demonstrations along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

“Those who have demonstrated these last few days with Hizbollah flags have been south Lebanon residents who identify with Hizbollah… but none of them has been armed,” Olmert said.

The prime minister also ruled out holding talks with Syria, accusing Damascus of being “the main sponsor of Palestinian terrorist groups”.

“No base for negotiations with Syria exists because this country continuously conducts terrorist activities against Israel through Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” said Olmert.

“All this indicates that one can’t take seriously the statements of Syrian leaders. Syria was and continues to be the main sponsor of Palestinian terrorist groups,” he said.

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