WHISTLER -- The hunt for a common viewpoint in seeking Middle East peace surfaced as the most troublesome issue when foreign ministers from the eight leading industrialized countries met here Wednesday.
That struggle pits the United States against other members of the Group of Eight -- Canada, Russia, France, Italy, Japan, Germany and Britain -- on pushing Israel, the Palestinians and regional Arab countries into a negotiating process.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has yet to sign off on a policy amid persistent reports of internal dissent on how to address months of suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists and Israeli military counter-attacks.
"There certainly are, as in any policy matter, a variety of views as to what should be done," admitted Canada's foreign minister Bill Graham at the start of the two-day discussion.
"I hope we will come down with an agreement on the need for an international conference to move forward," Graham said. "We should at least be supporting each other."
The Whistler meeting is in preparation for the G8 leaders' summit to be held in Kananaskis, Alta., later this month.
Foreign ministers also assessed how effectively they have coordinated their response to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and how they can deepen and broaden the continuing campaign to root out terrorist cells linked to the al-Qaida network.
Graham said the ministers are paying special attention to what aid they may be able to offer countries less able to mount effective counter-measurers to terrorists in such areas as airport security, money laundering and security service documentation systems.
The confrontation between Indian and Pakistan, with its threat of a regional nuclear war, has dropped down the ministers' agenda in the last few days.
Graham said they still regard the armed standoff over terrorist attacks on India by guerrillas it claims are aided and harboured by Pakistan as an extremely dangerous situation. The ministers will continue to pressure both sides to withdraw from the brink of war.
But Graham said "we are very encouraged" by signs in the past few days that tensions are easing.
India at the weekend withdrew a large flotilla of warships from close to the Pakistani coast and eased restrictions on civilian aircraft flights after Pakistan made moves to curb the infiltration of terrorists.
Graham said that with the grand council of elders, known as the loya jirga, meeting in the Afghan capital Kabul to establish an interim government, it is essential the country not be allowed to again become a terrorist haven or major source of drug trafficking.
Among the G8 ministers there is a conviction the creation of a national Afghan army and police force is essential to overcoming regional warlords and to allowing reconstruction and development plans to proceed effectively.
On the Middle East, the international community is awaiting word from Washington as Bush works through meetings with regional leaders aimed at fine-tuning his policy.
"In the very near future he will make clear his views on how to move forward," Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Tuesday. Powell reaffirmed the U.S. wants a regional peace conference to start before the end of the summer, a position supported by G8 partners.
But Bush does not appear to have yet resolved a number of critical nuances and pre-conditions.
After a meeting with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak on Saturday, Bush said there should be immediate work toward establishing a Palestinian state, the position of the Arab world.
But on Monday he appeared to reflect the views of his next guest, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, when he said there could be no progress toward Mideast peace until there is democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority headed by Yasser Arafat.
The situation is complicated further by divisions within the Israeli government. Prime Minister Sharon says he not only requires an end to Palestinian violence before talks can start, he appears to be determined not to give up the West Bank and Gaza territories captured by Israel in its 1967 war with neighbours.
Other factions within his government believe opening negotiations is a necessary road toward peace and that an end to violence is an unrealistic precondition.
The situation appears to have solidified Palestinian leader Arafat's questionable legitimacy in power.
On Tuesday, a close aide to Arafat told the New York Times: "The Israelis are confused, the Americans are absent as always, and the region is in terrible shape."
Canada's Foreign Minister Bill Graham, 63, will play a leadership role as his international counterparts begin meetings today in Whistler.
The Toronto MP, who was first elected in 1993 but only became foreign affairs minister in January, came under heavy criticism this spring by continuing to endorse the political wing of Hezbollah, a group that opposes the existence of Israel.
Although the U.S. has banned all activities by Hezbollah, Graham defended Canada's policy that allows Hezbollah's political arm to freely raise funds in Canada because it is seen as separate from its military branch, which favours suicide bombings and the reclamation of Israeli-held land it says belongs to Lebanon.
Graham is a lawyer and law professor who taught in the law faculties at McGill University and the universities of Toronto and Montreal.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, 54, is perhaps his country's most popular politician -- despite his recent admission that he beat up a policeman during a street riot in 1973.
Fischer, who is known as a witty politician with star quality, is no stranger to controversy, having been a young political radical with the Greens.
After a colourful youth -- he dropped out of school, married a minor and drove a taxi -- Fischer became the first Green member of parliament in 1983. Fischer, who gave a tough profile to the Green party, led it to its best electoral showing in 1998 elections. His reward was the post of foreign affairs minister.
Fischer, who is married for a fourth time, has a passion for big, controversial ideas. Recently, he stirred European passions by proposing a truly European government, with much smaller nation states.
Italian Foreign Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, 66, is also his country's prime minister. Although Berlusconi has a law degree, he became renowned in Italy as a property developer, book publisher, media mogul and chairman of A.C. Milan, the soccer team that won numerous national titles and two World Cup championships.
In 1994, Berlusconi resigned his positions in various banking and business ventures and founded a political party, vaulting to prime minister in the March 1994 election.
Berlusconi later lost his position and became leader of the opposition but won the 2001 election with nearly 19 million votes.
He has been acting foreign minister since January.
France's Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin has a long history in international relations but is, perhaps, the newest foreign minister to attend the conference.
The Moroccan-born de Villepin, 48, was appointed foreign affairs minister about a month ago, although he has a long track record in international diplomacy.
De Villepin has been a long-time advisor to French President Jacques Chirac and was his chief of staff at the presidential Elysee Palace since Chirac was first elected president in 1995.
De Villepin, who has degrees in arts and law and a diploma in political studies, was appointed secretary of foreign affairs in 1980 and has held numerous related posts since then.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, de Villepin worked in France's foreign affairs ministry, specializing in African, American and Indian affairs and often living in the respective countries.
He was appointed foreign affairs minister in May.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi is an American-educated economics expert who has held her current position for only four months.
Kawaguchi, 61, was born in Tokyo and received a degree in international relations from Tokyo University before moving to the United States, where she earned a degree in economics.
Kawaguchi held high-ranking jobs with various economic and environmental organizations before becoming a minister in the Japanese embassy in the United States.
She became Japan's environment minister last year, but was shuffled to foreign affairs in February.
Britain's Jack Straw has been Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs since June 2001 and the MP for Blackburn since 1979.
Straw is a lawyer who got involved in student politics at Essex and Leeds University and became the president of the National Student Union in 1967-68.
While in opposition, he was the Labour party critic in a number of portfolios, including education, environment, local government and treasury.
He has recently been in India and Pakistan, trying to lower tensions in the conflict between the two countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was appointed by President George Bush in 2000. A professional soldier for 35 years, he is best known for his role as the head of the U.S. forces during the Gulf War in 1991.
Powell grew up in the south Bronx, the son of Jamaican immigrants, graduating with a degree in geology from the State University of New York, where he also earned a commission as an army second lieutenant.
After his retirement from the military, he wrote a best-selling autobiography called My American Journey and pursued a career as a public speaker.
Igor Ivanov has been Foreign Minister of Russia since 1999. He spent 15 years in Madrid, first as a trade representative and later as ambassador after studying English and Spanish at the Thorez Language Institute.
In his current role, Ivanov argued sharply against NATO's role in Kosovo. He also opposed any former parts of the U.S.S.R. being inducted into NATO.
Recently, however, Russia has moved closer to NATO as part of the war on terrorism.
Ivanov has also been active recently in pushing for a settlement of the Middle-East crisis.
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