Israel Calls for Opening of Peace Talks With Lebanon

Israel on Wednesday urged Lebanon to open peace talks, the latest move in a flurry of developments aimed at easing the multiple conflicts in the region.

Government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was interested in "direct, bilateral" talks and ready to put "every issue of contention" on the table, including a key border dispute over a tiny patch of land Israel controls.

Regev's comments were the government's most explicit overture toward Lebanon. Last week, when Olmert hinted Israel would be interested in talks with Beirut, the Lebanese government rejected them. On Wednesday, a Lebanese government official said that position hadn't changed.

In the past, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has said his country would be the last to make peace with the Jewish state.

Israel's attempts to bring Lebanon into a widening circle of peace talks comes just weeks after Israel and Syria confirmed they had relaunched indirect peace talks, ending an eight-year breakdown. Earlier this week, a senior government official confirmed Israel was pursuing a prisoner swap with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, another bitter foe.

And on Thursday, Israel and Gaza Strip militants are to enter into a truce meant to halt militant rocket fire on southern Israel and ease a crushing Israeli economic blockade on the impoverished coastal territory.

Israel fought two wars in Lebanon and occupied an enclave in southern Lebanon for 18 years until 2000. Lebanon joined other Arab nations that invaded the Jewish state upon its creation in 1948, but was a minor player in that war.

In 1983 — a year after Israel launched its first invasion of Lebanon — the two countries signed an agreement terminating their state of war. But that U.S.-backed attempt quickly collapsed because the pro-Israel Lebanese government disintegrated under pressure from neighboring Syria.

Israel's relations with Lebanon have been complicated by the fractured nature of Lebanese politics and the Syrian influence, which continues to this day.

Israel's border dispute with Lebanon is a major sticking point between the two countries, and on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced U.S. backing for a new diplomatic push to resolve the conflict.

Israel captured the Chebaa Farms when it seized Syria's Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War. The U.N. has determined that the area — a piece of land of about 25 square miles where the Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese borders meet — is Syrian, and that Syria and Israel should negotiate its fate.

But Lebanon claims Chebaa, and Hezbollah continues to fight over the disputed land.

Hezbollah clashed with Israel for a month in 2006 after seizing two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Hezbollah has refused to release them unless Israel frees Samir Kantar, a Lebanese operative of the PLO who took part in a notorious 1979 attack.

Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert say he has agreed to trade Kantar for the two soldiers, but no deal has been finalized. The servicemen are thought to have been severely wounded during their capture, and Hezbollah has offered no proof they are alive.

Even if the deal does go through, it is unlikely to ease the animosity between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.