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United States, France Both Want Credit for Lebanon Peace Plan

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post
PARIS

While a cease-fire appears to be holding between Israel and Lebanon, a diplomatic conflict between the United States and France over the future course and conduct of the Middle East peace process is far from being resolved, according to senior officials in both governments.

Much of the squabbling between Paris and Washington over the past week has centered on who deserves credit for securing the written understandings between Lebanon and Israel, in consultation with Syria, banning attacks on civilian targets on either side of the border.

But officials in both governments said the bickering over paternity for the Lebanon accord masks more serious differences over longer-term strategy in reaching a comprehensive Middle East peace. These include whether to solicit Iran's cooperation, the extent of Israel's security guarantees, a growing rivalry over arms sales to the region and how to divide up any reconstruction costs and peacekeeping duties.

The simmering discord came to a boil last week when Clinton administration officials expressed their infuriation with what they perceived as France's meddling in the week-long shuttle mission by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

U.S. officials said France's determination to take credit for the eventual deal nearly derailed Christopher's mission because it sent conflicting signals to Arab governments at delicate stages of the negotiations. They said it also encouraged Iran to adopt a higher profile in the region at a time when the United States is trying to isolate the militant Islamic regime.

At a news conference Monday, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette rejected such criticism and claimed a large measure of responsibility for the successful outcome in the Lebanon crisis, saying France was responsible for "80 percent of the ideas contained in the text."

A senior U.S. official sharply disputed the French version, saying the document "had nothing to do with any French proposals." He said the text was painstakingly conceived by Christopher and his top Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, and adjusted over the course of the week to take account of suggestions and objections by Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese leaders.

President Jacques Chirac sent de Charette to the region on April 15 and he began shuttling among various capitals seeking to devise a balanced peace plan. Christopher arrived five days later, shortly after Israeli shells hit a U.N. camp at Qana in southern Lebanon, killing more than 100 civilian refugees there and provoking international outrage.

At first, U.S. officials said Christopher was only mildly irritated by de Charette's presence. But by Wednesday, after de Charette had met twice with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and urged the Lebanese government to endorse France's plan, aides said Christopher had become alarmed that de Charette's travels could scuttle his chances of getting a cease-fire.

Washington strongly opposed France's proposal for a Western "dialogue" with Iran to help achieve a cease-fire, its contention that it might be necessary to offer incentives to the militant Islamic Hizbollah movement, and its call for a comprehensive peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel that would provide for a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon in exchange for security guarantees.

Christopher broke off contacts with de Charette and the Clinton administration set up an alternate channel of keeping the French informed through Jean-David Levitte, Chirac's diplomatic counselor. The Americans reportedly found Levitte a more reassuring interlocutor who wanted to be careful about preserving the good working relationship between Chirac and President Clinton.

De Charette stoutly defended his mission to the Middle East, saying, "When there is a fire burning out of control, it is not the time to stand around with arms folded but a time for every fireman to rush to the scene to try to put it out."

Other French officials contended that any delay in reaching a truce in Lebanon resulted from the tardiness of the U.S. government in waking up to the dimensions of the Lebanon crisis.