ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – President Bush rejected Lebanon's calls for a cease-fire in escalating Mideast violence on Friday, saying only that Israel should try to limit civilian casualties as it steps up attacks on its neighbor.
"The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
Lebanon's prime minister asked Bush, during a phone call Friday, to pressure Israel for a cease-fire. But Bush told Prime Minister Fuad Saniora that Israelis have a right to protect themselves.
"We think it's important that, in doing that, they try to limit as much as possible the so-called collateral damage, not only on civilians but also on human lives," Snow said.
Israeli war planes have been bombing sites around Lebanon, including the main airport, bridges and power stations, to punish Hezbollah for the capture of two Israeli soldiers. At least 61 people in Lebanon have been killed.
On the other side, Hezbollah militants have fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israel. At least 10 Israelis have been killed.
Saniora's office issued a statement saying Bush "affirmed his readiness to put pressure on Israel to limit the damage to Lebanon as a result of the current military action, and to spare civilians and innocent people from harm."
Snow said that wasn't so. Bush merely "reiterated his position" that Israel should limit the impact on civilians, he said.
"It is unlikely that either or both parties are going to agree to" a cease-fire at this point, Snow said.
Bush's conversation with Saniora as he flew from Germany to Russia was part of a round of telephone diplomacy aimed at quelling the flare-up in violence. The president also spoke with allies Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II and thanked them for helping to try to ease the violence in their neighborhood, Snow said.
Bush was pleased that a number of major Muslim nations such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia "do not look on Hezbollah as being a legitimate government entity," Snow said.
Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed militant Shiite faction which has a free hand in southern Lebanon and holds seats in parliament. The Lebanese government has no control over Hezbollah but has long resisted international pressure to forcibly disarm the group for fears of igniting sectarian conflict.
Bush has not spoken with Israeli leaders, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Snow said. Snow did not provide details of the conversation.
The president flew to Russia for discussions with President Vladimir Putin and a weekend summit of industrial powers being held here. Israel's attacks on Lebanon and the counterattacks on Israel were sure to be heavy discussion topics — on an issue where Bush is at odds with some of his allies.
Russia, the host of the Group of Eight summit, and France, another summit nation, have criticized the Israeli attacks. But Bush's strong defense for Israel's right to defend itself has been tempered only by concern that the offensive could weaken or topple the fragile democratic government in Beirut.
The crisis threatened to dash Bush's hopes to see the G8 summit produce a united stand against Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's long-range missile test.
Snow said it seemed inevitable that the G8 members would issue some kind of a statement on the Mideast situation, but it was unclear what it would say. Rice said a three-person team sent by the United Nations to the region should get a chance to try to defuse the crisis.
Several drafts concerning violence in the Middle East were already on the table. "With the pace of events, they're going to have to redraft them," Snow said.
"It is important that everybody talk with one voice," Snow said.
In St. Petersburg, Bush's first stop was a monument honoring those who defended Leningrad — the Soviet name for the city — during the 900-day World War II siege. More than half a million people died, most of hunger. Bush and his wife paused there for a long moment of silence.
In what amounted to a gentle statement about democratic backsliding under Putin's leadership, Bush went from there to sit down with 17 representatives from civil society groups whom he called "young, vibrant Russian activists who loved their country" but who also are concerned about human conditions there. The president said he planned to convey some of their worries directly to Putin.
"I assured them the United States of America cares about the form of government in Russia," Bush told reporters afterward. "I hope I was encouraging for them. It was instructive to me."
The highlight of the president's first day here was a social dinner with Putin at the opulent 18th century Konstantin Palace, the luxurious venue Putin chose for the Group of Eight meetings.
Beforehand, the president spent part of the afternoon on a bike ride in a wooded area near the site of the summit.
Bush and Putin meet as U.S. and Russian negotiators try to conclude a deal to let Russia join the World Trade Organization. Russia hoped to have the presidents announce it as early as Saturday.
But while officials reached a breakthrough in banking, officials said U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Russian Economics Minister German Gref continued working Friday on a number of other sticking points.
"There is no resolution at this point," said Sean Spicer, Schwab's spokesman.