Peres walks tightrope

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The Independent Online
In search of a ceasefire in Lebanon, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, yesterday shuttled between Damascus and Jerusalem to talk with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister of Israel.

President Assad wants to see the reinstatement of the 1993 understanding under which Israel and Hizbollah pledged not to fire at civilians. Mr Peres, who launched Operation Grapes of Wrath 12 days ago, wants the Israeli army to be able to shoot into villages in the Israeli occupied zone in south Lebanon from which Hizbollah guerrillas are operating.

Mr Peres faces an election in six weeks. If he is seen by Israeli voters to have caved in under international pressure, this could cost him the election. At the same time, Israeli-Arab voters, who yesterday called a day of mourning because of the attack on Lebanon, may stay at home on 29 May.

Mr Christopher arrived in Jerusalem yesterday morning for two hours of talks with Mr Peres. The US and Israel are eager to fend off intervention by Russia and France, whose foreign ministers are also in the area. Mr Peres said: "If there is more than one channel there will be total confusion." Headded that a ceasefire was possible "in a number of days".

President Assad assured Mr Christopher that he would urge Hizbollah to seek a ceasefire. The US wants Syria to rein in Hizbollah in return for Israel limiting the freedom of action of its army. The ceasefire would be supervised by a body headed by the US. After the slaughter of 105 Lebanese refugees at Qana, Israel is very dependent on American diplomatic strength and goodwill.

Meanwhile, there are growing signs of disagreement in the Israeli armed forces. A senior officer in the Northern Command of the Israeli army was quoted by the daily Ha'aretz as saying: "As far as we are concerned, [the operation] was a failure ... yesterday the terrorists fired more than 100 Katyushas into northern Israel."

The officer said that Israeli military intelligence miscalculated the strength of Hizbollah. He said: "Obviously, they will try to shift the blame ... but the biggest fiasco of this operation is military intelligence's."

Immediately after the Qana incident the General Staff reportedly curtailed Israeli army activity - though this is contradicted by Lebanese observers - and Major General Amnon Levine, the head of Northern Command, is said to be "low and very angry".

Yevgeni Primakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, is expected in Israel tonight. Although Israel says the US is the only channel for mediation, the intervention of Mr Primakov and Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister, will put pressure on Mr Christopher, who, until the Qana massacre, supported the Israeli operation.

Israeli commentators note wryly that President Assad, who appeared isolated a month ago when President Clinton organised the Sharm el-Sheikh conference on terror and Middle East peace, is now in a very strong position. At the weekend he had Mr Christopher, Mr Primakov and three European foreign ministers paying him court.