Saudi Arabia asked President Bush on Sunday to intervene in Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon to stop the mounting deaths, but administration officials said they remain convinced that an immediate cease-fire is not the answer.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that during an Oval Office meeting with Bush, he gave the president a letter from Saudi King Abdullah asking that Bush help seek an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East conflict. The meeting came on the 12th day of fighting in which Israel has bombed south Beirut and other targets while Hezbollah has rained hundreds of rockets on northern Israel.
“We requested a cease-fire to allow for a cessation of hostilities,” Saud told reporters after the meeting.
“I have brought a letter from the Saudi King to stop the bleeding in Lebanon, and there has been an agreement to save Lebanese lives, Lebanese properties and what the Lebanese have built, and to save this country from the ordeal it is facing,” Saud said. Saud’s comment reflected Bush’s past statements that all want the violence to stop, although he has refused to press for an immediate cease-fire.
Saud and four other Saudi officials met with Bush for more than an hour Sunday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also participated in the meeting before departing for Israel in the first U.S. diplomatic effort on the ground since Israel began bombing Lebanon on July 12. The fighting has killed hundreds in Lebanon and dozens in Israel.
On the way to a refueling stop in Ireland, Rice told reporters that the United States’ poor relationship with Syria is overstated and indicated an openness to working with Damascus to resolve the crisis in the Middle East.
“The problem isn’t that people haven’t talked to the Syrians. It’s that the Syrians haven’t acted,” she said. “I think this is simply just a kind of false hobby horse that somehow it’s because we don’t talk to the Syrians.
“It’s not as if we don’t have diplomatic relations,” she said. “We do.”
She noted that the U.S. still has a diplomatic mission and State Department officials working in the Syrian capital and called that presence a “channel for dealing with Syria.”
Officials from the U.N., Europe and other Arab countries have already urged an end to the fighting. Rice and Bush have rejected calls for an immediate cease-fire, saying it does not make sense if the terrorist threat from Hezbollah is not addressed. They have said Israel has a right to defend itself from terrorism and that Hezbollah must return two captured Israeli soldiers and stop firing missiles and rockets into Israel if they want the fighting to stop.
“Our position on an immediate cease-fire is well known and has not changed,” White House national security spokesman Frederick Jones said after the meeting with Saudi officials.
Nail al-Jubeir, a Saudi embassy spokesman, said the Saudis would not release the letter or get into other details of the proposal because it was a private communication between Abdullah and Bush. Asked whether the Saudis requested that Bush directly pressure Israeli leaders for a cease-fire, al-Jubeir said they cannot tell the president who to call. But he noted Bush has a unique influence to negotiate with Israel.
“The U.S. has the authority, it has the clout with Israel,” he said. “For us to go and talk to the Israelis isn’t going to do anything.”
Saud said in their meeting, Bush expressed his desire for the violence to stop. But Saudi officials would not say how he responded to their request for an immediate halt to Israel’s bombing campaign.
“I am not speaking on (behalf of) the president,” Saud added. “I am saying that we have agreed on the necessity to stop the fighting, so that the Lebanese government will be able to impose its authority upon its lands.
“Now the task is to hold negotiations with the Lebanese government to lay down the details of these issues, and as you know Rice is heading to the region to work on that,” Saud said. “All the details will be left to the Lebanese government.”
Saud spoke to reporters mostly in Arabic. His comments were translated by Arabic-speaking staff of The Associated Press.
A White House spokeswoman, Eryn Witcher, would not comment on the Saudi proposal. She read a three-sentence statement listing the participants and saying only that they have “shared goals of helping the people of Lebanon and restoring sovereignty of the government of Lebanon and building stronger Lebanese armed forces.”
“They discussed the humanitarian situation and reconstruction and putting conditions in place for an end to violence,” Witcher said.
Witcher said participants in the meeting including Saud; Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the secretary general of the national security council; Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States; Adil al-Jubayr, the counselor to Abdullah; and Rihab Massoud, the deputy secretary general of the Saudi national security council.
For years, the Saudis have been among the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world, despite strains from U.S. pressures aimed at increasing democracy in the conservative kingdom.
The Saudis are among several moderate Arab countries that have worried about expanding influence in the Middle East by Iran, which create Hezbollah and has helped train and finance the organization. On the other hand, they cannot afford to appear too supportive of American or Israeli interests for fear of alienating their own citizens.
Saud spoke to reporters outside the West Wing as he left the White House.
“There is only one problem in this crisis: It is Lebanon, and the inability of Lebanon to exercise its sovereignty over its territory,” Saud said. “Everybody who needs to help, who must help, should help.”
Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said before the meeting that the U.S. will stand firmly behind Israel, noting that an attack on an ally is considered an attack on the U.S.
“We are allies, and we will support Israel in its right to self-defense,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “At the same time, we will do everything possible to make sure the crisis has a minimal impact on civilians.
“The purpose is to maintain a sustainable cease-fire,” Bolten said. “It’s sustainable only if we get to the root problem, which is Hezbollah, a terrorist organization.”
Bolten said international peacekeepers might be needed in Lebanon to help end the fighting, but that U.S. troop involvement was unlikely.
Rice plans meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, she will go to Rome for sessions with representatives of European and moderate Arab governments that are meant to shore up the weak democratic government in Lebanon.
“She’ll be talking to friends and allies as to whether and when force is appropriate and how it should be constructed,” Bolten said.
Bush said he has directed Rice to discuss with Mideast leaders how best to end the fighting in Lebanon. The chief U.S. diplomat will not meet with Hezbollah leaders or their Syrian backers.
© 2006 The Associated Press