Israel, U.S. ponder news ways to collect intelligence in Lebanon
By Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondent
Israel and the United States are considering alternative methods for collecting intelligence in Lebanon that would replace the overflights of Lebanese airspace by Israel Air Force jets.
"We do not want to embarrass the government of Lebanon and create tensions with the states who deployed, at our request, troops to the United Nations force. If a solution can be found that would not require the overflights, and we could have another means to learn what goes on over there perfect," a senior political source in Jerusalem said Thursday.
"If they will find a way to provide us with the information, that will be a very good solution," the source added.
Among the possible alternatives to the overflights of IAF aircraft are the use of American satellites or intelligence gathering flights carried out by other countries, with the approval of the government of Lebanon.
Washington has made it clear to Israel that it recognizes the need for gathering intelligence and knows that the air force's aerial photography provided important information that helped Israel during the recent war in Lebanon.
However, the Americans are concerned that continued overflights would contribute to a weakening of the government of Lebanon headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The U.S. fears the flights will offer Hezbollah an excuse to violate the cease-fire, by arguing that Israel has broken the deal first with its overflights.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will discuss the issue of the overflights during his visit to Washington on Monday. Olmert will inform President George W. Bush of the continued supply of arms to Hezbollah and the fact that the international embargo is only being implemented partially.
The low-level flights over Beirut and other Lebanese cities last week drew severe international criticism.
A senior U.S. official told reporters in Tel Aviv this week, "We recognize Israel's need for these flights, and are seeking a solution that will be suitable both for the international community and meet Israel's needs."
France intensified its condemnation of the Israeli flights over Lebanon Thursday. Israel's ambassador to Paris, Daniel Shek, was called to the French Foreign Ministry, where a he was presented with a serious official protest.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy summoned Shek over an incident in late October involving jet fighters that descended rapidly and then rose quickly as if they were dropping bombs or firing at French ground forces serving in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
The troops came within two seconds of firing missiles at the jets, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Thursday.
"In legitimate defense, our soldiers removed the covers from the missile battery and were two seconds away from firing at the planes that were threatening them," she said.