New York Times
February 17, 2005
WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 - As rising instability in Lebanon increases tensions in the Middle East, the Bush administration is arguing with European governments over whether they should designate the Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah a terrorist organization, American and European officials say.
The United States is already stepping up pressure on Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's main sponsors. The American rift with Syria deepened this week, with suspicions that Syria might have been behind the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister in Beirut on Monday.
The disagreement over Hezbollah presents another challenge for President Bush, who will go to Europe on Sunday on a mission to fix ruptures with Europe over the Iraq war.
In the past two weeks, the officials said, France has rebuffed appeals by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, which would prevent it from raising money in Europe through charity groups. The United States has long called Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but the French, American and European officials said, have opposed doing so, and argue that making such a designation now would be unwise, given the new turbulence in Lebanon.
Israeli and American officials say that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has told them that he, too, regards Hezbollah as a destructive force in the Middle East, one determined to undermine peace talks by supporting militant groups that attack Israelis.
The officials and diplomats interviewed would not give their names, saying they did not want to be seen as worsening tensions between the United States and Europe on the eve of Mr. Bush's trip.
The Europeans are not solidly opposed to listing Hezbollah as a terrorist group, the officials said. The Netherlands, Italy and Poland support the Bush administration's view, several officials said, while Germany and Britain believe the issue is moot unless the French change their minds. One European diplomat said other countries were "hiding behind" France on the issue.
Hezbollah, which is based in the Bekaa region in Lebanon, gets much of its financial support from Syria and Iran, American officials say. But besides carrying out attacks on civilians and opposing Israel, Hezbollah also provides social services to thousands of Lebanese Shiites and has political representatives in Lebanon's Parliament.
"This is a difficult issue because Hezbollah has military operations that we deplore, but Hezbollah is also a political party in Lebanon," said a European official. "Can a political party elected by the Lebanese people be put on a terrorist list? Would that really help deal with terrorism? Now with Lebanon in a fragile state, is this the proper moment to take such a step?"
A European diplomat said the issue of calling Hezbollah a terrorist organization was discussed in Brussels on Wednesday at a meeting of the Clearing House, a unit of the European Union that meets in confidential sessions to review terrorist activities in Europe. The group could reach no consensus, the diplomat said.
"Nothing is going to change on Hezbollah because we don't have an agreement among the member states," the diplomat said. "That doesn't mean we won't get a consensus. I know the Americans are impatient, but the European Union has 25 states, and these things take time."
The Bush administration persuaded the Europeans to list Hamas, the Palestinian militant organization, as a terrorist group in September 2003. But enforcement of a ban on Hamas's fund-raising and financial activities has been left to each country, so the effort has been uneven, European officials say. Most countries have not made serious enforcement efforts, they said.
Now, in a measure of continuing trans-Atlantic disagreement about how to handle the Middle East, some European countries are questioning whether Hamas should remain on the terrorist list, because some of its members won municipal posts in recent Palestinian elections, and Europeans want to encourage Hamas to enter the mainstream of Palestinian politics.
Britain and other countries have argued that the best way to press Hamas to drop its efforts to disrupt Middle East peace talks and to recognize Israel is to offer inducements, several officials said. But the Clearing House has not raised the question of whether to remove Hamas from the terrorist list.
A senior State Department official said that the United States had wanted Europe to list Hezbollah as a terrorist group for some time, but that it had become a priority now that the Israelis and the Palestinians were making progress in easing tensions.
"It's incumbent on everybody to tighten up on Hezbollah, but it's become this big fat wild card that everybody's afraid to take on," an administration official said.
Ms. Rice, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during hearings on the State Department budget, singled out Hezbollah as a group that had tried to wreck the Middle East peace talks.
"Here you have Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, many of them supported by Syria, trying literally to blow up the process," Ms. Rice said.
In a statement before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Porter J. Goss, the new director of central intelligence, said Hezbollah's "main focus remains Israel, but it could conduct lethal attacks against U.S. interests quickly upon a decision to do so."
The dispute over how to handle Hezbollah underscores the number of issues that continue to divide the United States from its longtime European allies, despite Ms. Rice's recent visit.
French doubts about punishing Hezbollah echo the European-American dispute over how to handle Iran, which intelligence officials say is the main source of Hezbollah's financing. The administration favors punishments and penalties on Iran, while most European governments favor negotiations and engagement.
In addition, Europe is determined to lift an arms embargo imposed in 1989 on China, which the United States wants to keep, while the United States opposes the Kyoto Treaty on global warming and the International Criminal Court, each warmly supported in Europe.
Another issue is American opposition to another term for Mohamed El Baradei as chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an issue also linked to Iran. Europeans argue that Dr. El Baradei, a Muslim, is best suited to press the Iranians to cooperate on its nuclear program.