Rice meets Olmert, hopes cease-fire can be reached by Wednesday

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Israel on Saturday for a new round of diplomacy aimed at ending more than two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.


Rice, who dined with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday evening, said she hoped for agreement on the main conditions for a cease-fire to be outlined in a United Nations resolution that could be tabled as early as Wednesday. She was also to meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
„I expect the discussions to be difficult, but there will have to be give and take,” Rice told reporters.
„I assume and have every reason to believe that leadership on both sides of this crisis would like to see it end.”
Rice’s plan to stop the fighting envisages the deployment of a multinational force in southern Lebanon, the disarming of Hezbollah and the return of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldiers, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
Rice welcomed as a „positive step” the agreement by Hezbollah cabinet members to seek an immediate cease-fire that would include the disarming of militias.
In Beirut, Hezbollah politicians signed on to a proposed peace package that includes strengthening an international force in south Lebanon and disarming the guerrillas, the government said.
The agreement, reached at a cabinet meeting, was the first time Hezbollah had agreed to a proposal for ending the crisis that includes the deploying of international forces.
Speaking to reporters en route to Jerusalem, Rice also praised Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora for persuading Hezbollah to agree.
„The most important thing that this does for the process is that it shows a Lebanese government that is functioning as a Lebanese government,” Rice told reporters traveling with her. „That is in and of itself extremely important.”
Olmert, meanwhile, met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz for consultations Saturday, Israel Radio reported.
U.S. President George W. Bush said Friday that Rice would return to the region with a cease-fire proposal package to present to Israel and Lebanon.
Rice will also hold talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has been pleading for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Saturday he believed it was possible to get agreement on a peacekeeping force for Lebanon within days and that this could clear the way for a cease-fire.
Asked if he believed it was possible to get agreement on a multinational force and even a cease-fire within days, Blair told a BBC television interviewer: „I think that it is possible to do that, provided we are clear about the ambitions.”
„You won’t get the force actually in [to Lebanon] within a few days but I think you could get agreement in principle to the international stabilization force. You then have to work out the details of it,” he said.
„I think you could get a United Nations resolution based on an agreement between the governments of Israel and Lebanon and I think if people can see then a pathway to a proper, stable lasting resolution of the conflict then I think you can get a cease-fire, yes,” said Blair, who is in San Francisco during a five-day U.S. visit.
Blair has come under strong criticism in Britain for supporting Bush and refraining from calling for an immediate cease-fire.
He denied in the interview that he was giving a green light to Israel to do what it wanted.
„What is happening in the Lebanon is absolutely terrible for the people there. … But you’re not going to resolve it unless you can get the cease-fire on both sides,” he said.
The conflict began on July 12, when Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon carried out a cross-border raid on Israel Defense Forces soldiers patrolling the frontier, kidnapping two and killing eight others.
U.S. officials said much diplomatic work remained and it was unclear whether a UN resolution would be ready by Monday.
Key elements under discussion include a prisoner exchange, creating an international force and disarming Hezbollah.
Speaking Friday at joint press conference in Washington with Blair after the two met on the two-week long conflict, the president said that Rice would be charged with working with Beirut and Jerusalem to come up with an acceptable UN resolution.
„Her instructions are to work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable UN Security Council resolution that we can table next week,” Bush said.
The president also stressed the need for an international force to be deployed in Lebanon to assist the Lebanese army in efforts to regain control of the southern part of the country, where Hezbollah has been the dominant military presence since the IDF withdrew from the area in May 2000.
„We agree that a to augment the Lebanese army as it moves the south of that country. An effective multinational force will help speed delivery of humanitarian relief,” Bush said.
He said the plan developed by he and Blair would „make every effort to achieve a lasting peace out of this process.”
„This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East,” the president added. „Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region.”
„In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors are willing to kill and use violence to stop the spread of peace and democracy,” he said. „They’re not going to succeed.”
He added: „The stakes are larger than just Lebanon.”
Blair said he and Bush agreed a UN resolution is needed as soon as possible to stop hostilities in Lebanon.
The prime minister said it was important not only to get a cessation of violence but to use the opportunity to set out and achieve a „different strategic direction for the whole of that region.”
„We’ve got to deal with the immediate situation” but also realize that the violence in recent weeks is part of a bigger picture that must be addressed,” said Blair.
He told reporters that three steps were being implemented to end the conflict – the return of Rice to the region, a meeting of Monday on the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon, and a UN resolution as soon as possible to allow a cessation of hostilities.
„Nothing will work, unless, as well as an end to the immediate crisis, we put in place the measures necessary to prevent it from occurring again,” Blair said. „We take this opportunity to set out and achieve a different strategic direction for the whole of that region.”
He urged Iran and Syria to stop supporting terrorism and become responsible mmebers of the international community.
But Blair also revealed the difficulty of restoring calm to a long-volatile region. „This can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work,” he said.
Britain and France said earlier Friday that they would press for a UN resolution to end the violence between Israel and Hezbollah.
Blair’s spokesman said the prime minister would seek to „increase the urgency” of diplomacy to end the violence between Israel and Hezbollah in his talks with Bush in Washington.
Speaking aboard Blair’s plane as it flew to Washington, the spokesman said Britain hoped a UN resolution could be in place by next week. He said Britain sought „to increase the urgency, the pace of diplomacy, in identifying the practical steps that are necessary to bring about a cease-fire on both sides.”
French President Jacques Chirac said Friday that France will press for the rapid adoption of a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, his office said.
Meanwhile, Portugal said Friday it would be willing to join any European Union peacekeeping force in an effort to stop the fighting.
„Portugal is willing to, within the EU, help find a strong solution for this conflict,” said Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado.
Italy, Germany, Ireland, France and Turkey have said they are considering
joining a United Nations-run multinational force.
However, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday
cast doubt on major UN involvement in any international force in Lebanon, saying more professional and better-trained troops were needed for such a volatile situation.
„I do think it is important that groundwork be laid so I can make the most of whatever time I can spend there,” Rice told a news conference in Malaysia, where she has been attending a conference on Asian issues.
The United States, adopting a diplomatic stance that has not been embraced by allies, has been insisting that any cease-fire to the violence over the last three weeks must come with conditions.
Otherwise, Rice and other U.S. officials have said repeatedly, they fear just a repetition of the on-again, off-again violence of recent years.
Asked what she hoped to accomplish when she does return to the region, Rice said, „We hope to achieve an early end to this violence, that’s what we hope to achieve.”
„That means that we have to help the parties establish conditions that will make it possible for an early cease-fire that, nonetheless, does not return us to the status quo,” she said. Referring to a summit about Lebanon that was held in Rome, she said: „I think everybody in Rome agreed that we can’t return to the circumstances that led us to this in the first place.”
Rice said the terms and conditions of a such a cease-fire would involve „a multinational force under UN supervision” that would have a mandate to enforce a peace agreement.
Rice’s spokesman, Adam Ereli, took strong issue with an assertion by Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who said the failure of world leaders to call for an immediate cease-fire at a summit in Rome gave Israel a green light to carry on with its campaign to crush Hezbollah.
„Any such statement is outrageous,” Ereli said. „The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict.”
Rice has spent three days dashing to high-stakes meetings in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Rome, and then traveled to Malaysia on Thursday for the long-planned conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
At her news conference Friday, Rice said that before returning to the region, she wanted to confer with aides Elliot Abrams and David Welch, both U.S. envoys for the region, to work on a second trek there.