G8: Middle East violence overshadows agenda

World leaders were concluding an annual economic summit on Monday in hopes that their statement blaming Middle East fighting on Hamas and Hezbollah and recognising Israel’s right to self defence would help break the cycle of violence.

Debate over the Middle East dominated discussions at this year’s Group of Eight (G8) summit, overshadowing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda of energy security, education and fighting infectious diseases.

The leaders of major industrialised countries — the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada — were holding final sessions with the leaders of five fast-growing economies: India, China, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, and Denis Sassou-Nuesso, president of the Republic of the Congo and chairperson of the African Union, were also to participate.

Those talks were expected to focus on more traditional summit fare, such as restarting stalled global trade talks and implementing a major debt relief programme for the world’s poorest nations that was announced at last year’s summit. Pascal Lamy, head of the World Trade Organisation, was expected to attend.

The G8 leaders struggled on Sunday to come up with a unified position on how to deal with the escalating violence between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The leaders’ statement said extremist groups cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into violence while also urging Israel to exercise restraint in its military campaign.

The statement was a compromise between a US position strongly supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks and the views of other G8 countries that Israel was engaging in excessive force.

”I am most pleased the leaders came together with a statement to say that we condemn violence, and to honour innocent life,” US President George Bush said on Monday before heading into a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. ”However, it’s the first time we’ve really addressed with clarity the root cause” of the fighting.

Bush said the recent the violence was ”encouraged by Syria, financed by Iran”.

The path toward a compromise opened on Sunday when Bush pressed Israel to show moderation. Bush said his message for Israel was ”defend yourself, but as you do so, be mindful of the consequences. And so we’ve urged restraint.”

The wording of the G8 statement allowed differing interpretations. French President Jacques Chirac said it was evident from the statement that the G8 was calling for a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. ”We all said it,” Chirac insisted.

But Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, disagreed. ”There was no push by any country for a ceasefire,” he said.

The Bush administration insisted the call for halting Israeli airstrikes was conditioned on Hezbollah releasing captured Israeli soldiers and ending missile attacks on Israel, although the statement was not clear on these points.

The US view was supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

”First of all, that the Israeli soldiers must be returned unharmed, that the attacks on Israel must stop and that then, of course, also the Israeli military action must be ended,” she said.

Putin said the declaration contained ”compromise formulations that in my mind are quite balanced” and said he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had led the effort to find common ground in talks with other G8 leaders on Sunday.

Putin had hoped this year’s summit, the first held in Russia since the country became a member of the G8 in 1998, would showcase his country’s economic rebound following a devastating economic collapse in 1998.

But he failed to win one of his most prized objectives — US support for Russia’s membership in the WTO — when marathon negotiations could not bridge all the differences before the summit began. Both countries predicted an agreement in the next two to three months.

Putin did win support for joint statements on energy security, infectious diseases and education, but these documents mainly stated broad goals with few specifics on how they could be achieved.

Anti-poverty groups expressed disappointment that the G8 failed to build on last year’s summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where the leaders pledged to slash the debt of the world’s poorest countries and double aid to Africa. – Sapa-AP

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