US fears a long campaign will favour guerrillas

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Intense efforts by the United States to halt Israel's pounding of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon reflect a growing fear in Washington that continuation of the offensive will only increase sympathy for the guerrilla movement in the Arab world and set back the faltering peace process even further.

Although he is accompanying President Clinton on his current visit to Japan, the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, is personally directing the diplomatic drive to secure a ceasefire, built on an end to Hizbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel and disarming the guerrillas, in return for a commitment by Israel to withdraw from its "security zone" in southern Lebanon.

In essence, the plan is an enlarged version of an understanding, also brokered by Washington, which ended a similar Israeli onslaught on Hizbollah positions in July 1993. But calls are growing for Israel's Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, to call a halt unilaterally.

Recognising that the offensive is "smart politics" for Mr Peres, before this spring's election, the New York Times yesterday none the less insisted that "having made his point, he needs to bring the offensive to an end". Israel had every right to defend itself from terrorist threats, said the paper, a staunch supporter of the Jewish state. "But continuing the retaliatory raids much longer can only reinforce Hizbollah's message to Lebanese civilians."

France has also pressed for an end to the Israeli attacks, but has had little success. The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, pressed on yesterday with his lone diplomatic mission to restore peace to south Lebanon, despite being given the brush-off by Mr Peres the previous evening.

After what was acknowledged by Mr de Charette to be a failed meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, the usefulness of his visits to Syria and Lebanon, and his telephone calls to Tehran, must be questionable. Diplomatic moves by the US could leave France more visibly sidelined than it was even after the US became involved in Bosnia and brokered the Dayton peace accords.

The French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who has just returned from a five-day tour of the French Caribbean, issued a sharp reprimand to Israel, but stressed also the legitimacy of its security concerns. Mr Juppe's careful double emphasis appeared designed to move France closer to the stance of its EU partners over the conflict.

Until Mr Juppe returned from the Caribbean, the French response centred on its unique contacts in the region and the unique contribution it could make to restoring peace.

This has added to an impression of a lack of co- ordination, if not actual fracturing, in the organisation of French foreign policy between the foreign ministry, the prime minister's office and the Elysee, where Jacques Chirac has pressed a more activist stance.