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(photo credit: AP [file])
While interested in seeing Israel significantly damage Hizbullah's operational capabilities, the US doesn't want to see the IDF's campaign topple the Lebanese government of Fuad Saniora, diplomatic officials said Monday.
The comments came as US President George W. Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would soon be coming to the region.
While there has been no formal US announcement, diplomatic officials said Rice was expected to arrive at the end of the week. Her arrival would likely lead to a scaling down of IDF operations, as she would not want to come to the region and leave without somehow scaling down the hostilities.
Senior security officials said Monday that Israel feels it has just a "few more days" to deal Hizbullah a heavy blow.
The US, according to one diplomatic official, views a severely weakened Hizbullah as something positive. At the same time, the Bush administration wants to see the Saniora government remain a viable force in Lebanon.
"The question that is being discussed at various levels, is at what point is the line crossed, at what point have things gone too far and the damage is so great that the Lebanese government will not be able to function," the official said.
Rice was preceded here Monday night by a high-level UN delegation which is to meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Tuesday.
Vijay Nambiar, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special political adviser and the head of the delegation, was quoted by AP in Beirut as saying after meeting Saniora that he would present Israel with "concrete ideas" to end the fighting. But he warned, "Much diplomatic work needs to be done," adding, "We have made some promising first efforts on the way forward."
Both Annan and Blair have come out in favor of an international force as part of a cease-fire agreement.
"The blunt reality is that this violence is not going to stop unless we create the conditions for the cessation of violence," Blair said in St. Petersburg.
"The only way we're going to get a cessation of hostilities is if we have the deployment of an international force into that area that can stop the bombardment over into Israel and therefore gives Israel a reason to stop its attacks on Hizbullah," he said.
The European Union foreign ministers, in a statement on the situation in Lebanon and Gaza issued after a meeting they held Monday in Brussels, also echoed a G-8 statement Sunday and welcomed "an active role of the UN Security Council including through examining the possibility for an international monitoring presence."
Israeli diplomatic officials said that considering the circumstances, and the scope of Israel's actions in Lebanon, Israel was pleased with the EU statement.
In the statement, the EU condemned Hizbullah attacks and the abduction of the IDF soldiers, and called for their immediate and unconditional release and for the cessation of all attacks on Israeli towns and cities. The statement also called for Lebanon to "restore its sovereignty over the whole of its national territory and to do its utmost to prevent such attacks." While recognizing Israel's "legitimate right to self-defense," the statement urged Israel to "exercise utmost restraint and not to resort to disproportionate action."
Israeli government officials said that preliminary discussions were being held in the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office regarding a possible international presence in southern Lebanon, although Israel's official position is that it wants to see the Lebanese government take control of the area.
Nevertheless, one diplomatic source said that Israel understood that the Lebanese government would have to be "augmented." The question that needed to be addressed, the official said, was who would augment the Lebanese army, and to what degree. "It is not clear whether this would be the UN, NATO or a combination of various countries," the source said.
The official agreed that Israel had two basic working assumptions: that it did not want to return and sit in southern Lebanon, and that it was doubtful that the Lebanese government could currently control the area and confront Hizbullah by itself. The logical conclusion, the official said, was that the Lebanese army would be assisted by some international constellation.
The official, echoing comments that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made at Sunday's cabinet meeting, said that Israel was not ruling out UN involvement - in spite of the negative experience Israel has had in the past with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) - because the UN played a key role in getting Syrian forces out of Lebanon and in calling for the Lebanese government to assert control through the entire country.
Meanwhile, diplomatic officials said that the evacuation by ferry of nearly 20,000 French citizens from Lebanon was coordinated at the highest levels between Paris and Jerusalem.
"This went all the way up to the prime minister," one senior diplomatic official said. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin spoke with Olmert on Sunday night.
The official said that Israel had no intention of protesting the French decision to send de Villepin and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy to Beirut Monday to show solidarity with the Lebanese government.
"This doesn't annoy us because we understand the close connection between France and Lebanon," the official said.
Lebanon was ruled by a League of Nations mandate from 1920 to its independence in 1943, and Paris has always had a special interest in developments there. French President Jacques Chirac was very close to assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri.
The official said the French leaders' visits to Lebanon were not interpreted in Jerusalem as anti-Israel, but rather pro-Lebanon. "We also have nothing against the Lebanese people," he said. "They have a special connection with Lebanon, and we are not upset that they are not coming to Haifa to show solidarity with us - nobody has, not even the Americans."