JERUSALEM – A rift is emerging between the European Union and the United States over whether Israel should cease its relentless offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas.
The Europeans fear mounting civilian casualties will play into the hands of militants, while the Bush administration is giving Israel a tacit green light to take the time it needs to neutralize the Shiite militant group.
The mixed message could help Israel in its mission to destroy Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Lebanon and stop the guerrillas' deadly rocket fire on major Israeli cities. But Islamic hard-liners and terrorist groups could be long-term winners, using the vivid television imagery of the death and destruction in Lebanon to win popularity and promote their jihads.
The United States, the country that holds the most sway with Israel, has said the Jewish state has the right to defend itself and that what is needed is a "meaningful" cease-fire — presumably one which includes the defanging of Hezbollah.
"What we want is ... the cessation of violence in a manner that is consistent with stability, peace, democracy in Lebanon, and also an end to terror," White House spokesman Tony Snow said in Washington on Tuesday. "A cease-fire that would leave the status quo ante intact is absolutely unacceptable. A cease-fire that would leave intact a terrorist infrastructure is unacceptable."
Snow said the Bush administration is working toward a cease-fire that is going "to create not only the conditions but the institutions for peace and democracy in the region."
By contrast, the European Union has called for a cease-fire now and said Israel's "disproportionate" use of force is not only threatening Lebanon's democratic government but providing just the fuel that extremist groups such as Hezbollah need to win public support.
The fighting has killed nearly 300 people in Lebanon and displaced 500,000. About 30 people have died in Israel, more than half killed by Hezbollah missiles.
With the international efforts to broker an immediate cease-fire stalled, Israel is likely to press ahead hard in Lebanon. On Tuesday, it said it was ready to fight the Hezbollah guerrillas for several more weeks.
After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday, Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, condemned the Hezbollah cross-border raid on July 12 that led to Israel's offensive and urged the guerrillas to immediately release the two soldiers they captured.
But he also called for a cease-fire and said diplomatic efforts to end the crisis should continue.
Asked if Israel's attacks in Lebanon were disproportionate, Solana said that if people think the offensive is causing "more suffering on the people than is necessary in order to obtain an objective," it could make it harder win their "hearts and minds" in the "battle against terrorists."
On Monday, EU ministers also urged Israel "not to resort to disproportionate action."
Livni rejected such criticism, saying that Israel's offensive is not just a reaction to Hezbollah's raid, but a response to the broad threat of Hezbollah to Israel's security. From that perspective, she said, Israel's air strikes on Lebanon are proportionate.
Olmert said in a statement that Israel's offensives against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip began after the militant groups acted "with the encouragement and involvement of Syria and Iran" and won't end until their threat to Israel's security is obliterated.
But the widespread Israeli air strikes appear to have increased the credibility and popularity of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in the Middle East. Israel is betting, however, that its campaign will deliver a decisive blow not only to Hezbollah, but to radical Islamic forces throughout the region.
Solana, who traveled to Israel after meeting with top Lebanese officials in Beirut, said Israel's offensive should not be allowed to weaken Lebanon's democratically elected government.
The Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon last year after the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri led to a democratically elected government free of Syrian control. The new Lebanese government has been applying pressure on Hezbollah to disarm, but has been hesitant about starting a conflict in the country.
Referring to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's current government, Solana said: "I think everything we do to weaken that is something which is not appropriate."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has discussed the crisis by telephone with Olmert and Solana. But Rice, who had been expected to visit the region this weekend, has refrained from setting a date — leading some to speculate that the U.S. wanted to give Israel more time to pursue its offensive.
Rice has called for a cease-fire of "lasting value" — one that would have the Lebanese army take over southern Lebanon from Hezbollah.
In Europe, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's top overseas ally, joined the American president on Wednesday in rejecting calls for Israel to declare a unilateral cease-fire, insisting that Hezbollah must free the Israeli soldiers it captured and stop firing rockets at Israel as a condition for ending the Mideast conflict.
But other European nations backed Solana.
French President Jacques Chirac called the Mideast fighting a "dramatic situation that deeply worries us." He urged Hezbollah to release the Israeli soldiers and to stop hitting Israel with missiles. But he also asked the Israelis to stop deadly bombings in Lebanon.
In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov expressed concern that "the war in the Middle East is escalating" and tacitly criticized Israel's use of force, saying, "It is particularly painful to witness the destruction of the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon."