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(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that Israel would not rush into a cease-fire to end 19 days of fighting in southern Lebanon until it achieves its goals there.
"I think it needs to be clear that Israel is not in a hurry to have a cease-fire before we reach a situation in which we can say that we achieved the central goals that we set down for ourselves," Olmert said before the government's weekly cabinet meeting.
"This requires a ripening of the diplomatic process and a specific agreement regarding the formation of the force that will operate from the areas from which Israel was threatened in this period."
Meanwhile, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon said Sunday that Israel did not rule out withdrawing from the disputed Sheba Farms territory but added that such a pullout would not be part of any deal to end the 19 days of fighting with the Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.
"It's not a secret that Lebanon says, Prime Minister (Fuad) Saniora says that the transfer of Sheba Farms to Lebanon would really strengthen it politically. There are Americans who also believe this. So we have to see with this give and take," he told Israel's Army Radio. "This is of course not something that will prevent or speed up a cease-fire."
Aides to Ehud Olmert, who met late Saturday with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said the prime minister was not opposed to a pullout from the disputed border area - a key Lebanese demand - as a gesture to strengthen Lebanon's government.
Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom said a withdrawal from Sheba Farms would backfire on Israel.
"In my opinion it would be a catastrophe if Israel would agree to give Sheba Farms to Lebanon. This would strengthen the line that is gaining popularity in the Arab world that only through violence is it possible to get anything from Israel," he told Israel Radio.
On Saturday, diplomatic sources reported that the US will attempt to reach a deal on a cease-fire in Lebanon and the deployment of a multinational force in Lebanon and present it at the UN Security Council on Wednesday.
Brokering the deal will be the main goal of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region and the following negotiations at the UN. Rice, according to the sources, will not pressure Israel into a cease-fire, but will focus on the conditions in which such a cease-fire can take place.
On her way back to Israel Saturday, Rice welcomed Hizbullah's agreement to stop the 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, referring to Hizbullah's signing on to a proposal made by the Lebanese government last week for a cease-fire.
The main goal of the US diplomacy in the coming week will be to promote the idea of an international force and to define its areas of responsibility.
The US and Britain are pushing forward a new UN resolution which will define the responsibilities of the new international force for Lebanon 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 disarming of Hizbullah as a precondition for deployment of the international force, but would rather leave dealing with this issue until the forces are already established on the ground.
Following a Friday White House meeting between US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an announcement was made on sending Rice back to the region over the weekend and drafting a new resolution which will be presented to the UN Security Council.
According to US officials, Rice, in her talks in Israel and Lebanon, would discuss the terms in which a cease-fire could take place, and the conditions under which the international force would operate, once deployed in Lebanon. After reaching agreements with both sides on the international force, Rice will return to the US and take part in the UN deliberation over the resolution giving the formal mandate for such a force.
The US would like the process of disarming the organization to be an internal Lebanese procedure, which could be gradual and will not take place at the time of signing a cease-fire agreement. One of the options being considered, according to US officials, is absorbing the Hizbullah members - under certain conditions - into the Lebanese army.
The UN Security Council will begin deliberations Monday on the make up of the international force. At present, only France, Italy, Turkey, Ireland and Poland and India have expressed their willingness to send troops for the force. On Wednesday the Security Council is expected to meet on the foreign ministers level and try to reach a comprehensive agreement on the mandate of the force and the terms for a cease-fire.
The package pushed by Bush and Blair Friday, whose details will be ironed out in Rice's talks in the region, will include a UN resolution on a cease-fire and on the deployment of the multinational force in the region; a call of an international donors conference for the rebuilding of Lebanon; and other measures intended to boost the power of the central government in Beirut.
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 which will work in cooperation with the Lebanese army in an effort to ensure arms do not reach Hizbullah through the borders and ports.
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 for creating a new situation in the region before demanding a cease-fire.
At a joint press conference, President Bush pointed out the priorities set out for solving the Lebanon conflict, describing them as "providing immediate humanitarian relief, achieving an end to the violence, ensuring the return of displaced persons, and assisting with reconstruction."
Both leaders stressed the need for providing humanitarian aid to the Lebanese people and assisting them in rebuilding their country.
Amid growing calls in the of analysts and pundits in the US to consider direct negotiations with Syria over the Lebanese issue, Bush 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."