(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Saturday night with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as diplomatic efforts to reach an overall agreement in Lebanon intensified and Thursday loomed as a possible deadline for the IDF to meet its military objectives.
Diplomatic sources in Washington said that the US will attempt to hammer together a cease-fire deal and the deployment of a multinational force in Lebanon and present the plan to the UN Security Council on Wednesday. A vote is expected Thursday.
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"Thursday is a very important bus stop," a senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem said when asked if this day would likely mark the end of the large-scale military operations.
Brokering the cease-fire deal, which is different from the immediate cease-fire that many international leaders are clamoring for, is the overarching goal of Rice's visits, her second to the region within a week. Rice is slated to meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz in separate meetings on Sunday. As of Saturday night it was not yet clear whether she would make another trip to Beirut or return to Washington following her Sunday talks in Jerusalem.
According to US officials, Rice's talks will focus on the terms in which a cease-fire can take place, and the conditions under which the international force would operate, once deployed in Lebanon. Rice is scheduled to return to the US and take part in the UN deliberation over the resolution, giving the formal mandate for such a force.
US President George Bush set the parameters of an overall agreement during a press conference Friday following a meeting in Washington with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The overriding goals include extending the authority of the Lebanese government throughout Lebanon, deploying an international force and disarming Hizbullah.
Senior Israeli diplomatic officials said Saturday that contrary to various press reports, Israel has not given up on its demand that Hizbullah be disarmed.
The officials greeted with satisfaction Bush's comments that the US wanted to see a multinational force dispatched to Lebanon under a Chapter 7 Security Council resolution. This type of resolution means that the force would not be UN "peacekeepers," but rather a force mandated with enforcing and implementing the UN Security Council resolution.
Israeli diplomatic officials said it was clear that any UN Security Council resolution on the crisis would reiterate the goals spelled out in resolution 1559, which include disarming the militias and moving the Lebanese army southward.
The officials warned, however, that once the Security Council passed a resolution calling for the deployment of a multinational force, it would take time - weeks, if not months - to put the force together, train and deploy it.
Among the issues that Rice was dealing with in Jerusalem, the official said, was what will happen in the interim.
"She is coming to nail down these questions, the official said, adding that the sense of urgency in arrival a day earlier than planned could be attributed to pressure from Blair.
The official said that Israel would only agree to a cease-fire as part of a bundle of steps that included dismantling Hizbullah and deployment of the Lebanese army in the south.
The UN resolution being pushed by the US and Britain will define the responsibilities of the new international force and ensure that it will have the authority to stop Hizbullah from rearming after a cease-fire is achieved. The resolution, according to reports in the US, will not demand the disarmament of Hizbullah as a pre-condition for deployment of the international force, but would rather put off dealing with this issue until the forces are already established on the ground.
The US would like the process of disarming Hizbullah to be an internal Lebanese procedure, which could be gradual and would not take place at the time of a cease-fire agreement would be signed. One of the options being considered, according to US officials, is absorbing Hizbullah members - under certain conditions - into the Lebanese army.
The UN Security Council will begin deliberations on Monday as to the make-up of the international force. At present, France, Italy, Turkey, Ireland, Portugal, Poland and India have expressed their willingness to contribute troops to the force. On Wednesday the Security Council is expected to meet at the level of foreign ministers to try to reach a comprehensive agreement on the mandate of the force and the terms for a cease-fire.
The international force is not seen by the US as a separate military force based on the existing UN model in Lebanon, but rather as a force that will work in cooperation with the Lebanese army in an effort to ensure arms do not reach Hizbullah through the borders and ports.
Rice, on her way back to Israel Saturday from Malaysia, welcomed reports that Hizbullah agreed to stop their fire and accept the presence of an international force in southern Lebanon.
"Obviously we are all trying to get to a cease-fire as quickly as possible, so I'll take this as a positive step," Rice said of Hizbullah signing onto the proposal made by the Lebanese government last week.
Blair's visit to Washington Friday, though expected to unearth the differences of opinion between Britain and the US over the Israeli offensive in Lebanon, ended with both sides acknowledging the need to create a new situation in the region before demanding a cease-fire.
Amid growing calls in the US for Bush to consider direct negotiations with Syria over the Lebanese issue, he remained firm in his opposition to any such contact. He stressed that Rice's mission to the Middle East would be limited to talks with leaders of Israel and Lebanon, and called on Syria to "become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace."
In a related development, Israel rejected a call Friday from UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland for a three-day truce to let food and medical help reach the war zone in southern Lebanon and let thousands of civilians trapped there get out.
A senior Israeli diplomatic official said that such a truce was not necessary, since Israel had already created a "humanitarian corridor" to the area, which it would expand.
Nonetheless, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy on Saturday criticized Israel's rejection of the 72-hour halt to fighting, saying France would renew its call for such a truce at the UN.
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