Hezbollah: Israel Policy Prevents Talks; Senior Leader: America Acting as 'Troublemaker'; Behavior 'Has to Change'

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Byline: Benjamin Birnbaum, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A senior Hezbollah leader in Lebanon has flatly rejected the idea of talking to Washington unless it revamps its Middle East policy, which his group says unfairly favors Israel.

There is an American behavior that has to change first, and then we can discuss the possibility of a dialogue, the organization's deputy chief, Sheik Naim Qassem, told the Associated Press on Monday.

The Hezbollah official was dismissing suggestions from former and current U.S. officials about engaging the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'ite group, designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.

America is playing the role of troublemaker in the region, Mr. Qassem said. He added that his group is preparing for war with Israel as if it is happening tomorrow, though he said Lebanon's devastating defeat in the 2006 war with the Jewish state made the prospect less likely.

While official U.S. policy remains non-engagement, John O. Brennan, deputy White House national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, stoked speculation of a shift last month when he said the U.S. should seek to strengthen Hezbollah's moderate elements.

In addition, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker this month told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he thinks the U.S. would gain from opening communication with Hezbollah, which participates in Lebanese politics while maintaining an independent militia with de-facto control over the country's largely Shi'ite south.

We cannot mess with our adversary's mind if we are not talking to him, he said. Hezbollah is a part of the Lebanese political landscape, and we should deal with it directly.

So far, administration officials have struck down rumors of any imminent opening to the group.

Our policy is non-engagement with Hezbollah, for all the reasons you know, and I don't anticipate that policy changing, said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, in the same hearing in which Mr. …