President Bush on Saturday abandoned his earlier calls for Israeli restraint in its escalating conflict with Hezbollah, instead calling on Syria to rein in the Shiite Muslim militant group.
Bush and his aides had for several days balanced demands for Hezbollah to stop firing rockets at northern Israel with muted declarations that Israel needed to try to avoid civilian casualties as it retaliated.
“The best way to stop the violence is to understand why the violence occurred in the first place,” Bush said at a news conference with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on the eve of a summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations in this suburb of St. Petersburg. “And that’s because Hezbollah has been launching rocket attacks out of Lebanon into Israel, and because Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. That’s why we have violence.
“And the best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms, and to stop attacking,” he said, adding, “I call upon Syria to exert influence over Hezbollah.”
On Saturday, Israeli warplanes struck central Beirut and Hezbollah strongholds, while Hezbollah continued to fire rockets at Israel, and citizens were warned that Tel Aviv could be hit.
“The solution, short-term solution, is for Hezbollah to stop the attacks. The longer-term solution is for nations around the world and nations in the neighborhood to support those who support the advance of democracy,” Bush said with Putin at his side.
The Russian president, clearly supporting Israel and denouncing Hezbollah’s attacks, said he shared Bush’s approach. Referring to the Hezbollah strikes, he said, “We consider Israel’s concerns to be justified.”
But not all of the G-8 leaders were as supportive of Israel, with French President Jacques Chirac saying, “One could ask if today there is not sort of a will to destroy Lebanon, its equipment, its roads, its communications.”
Stephen J. Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor, said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had spoken several times with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and that Bush planned to continue a series of efforts to persuade Middle East leaders to use their influence to try to contain the violence.
Olmert and Saudi King Abdullah were on the president’s call list, Hadley said. In recent days Bush has spoken with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and the prime minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora.
Hadley said the Israelis had assured U.S. officials they were trying to avoid killing civilians. Referring to the frequent contact, he said, “The Israelis are not feeling neglected by us.”
The conflict threatens to hijack the G-8 gathering, as have other Mideast crises with previous summits.
Aides to leaders from the G-8 nations -- Russia, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan -- were preparing a resolution on the situation.
Hadley said a consensus was emerging on “the role of Hezbollah as the bad actor in this.” He said the G-8 needed to develop a strategy that would recognize that Hezbollah was the root of the problem -- and that its benefactors, Iran and Syria, were “very much involved.” The Bush administration believes that Iran is funding Hezbollah, sending the money through Syria to Lebanon, where the group is largely based.
His comments and those of the president suggested an increase of pressure on Syria, with which the United States has strained ties and little influence.
“In the end of the day, people have choices to make, and Syria is making bad choices,” Hadley said.