Israel believes it has a 48-72-hour "window of opportunity" to pound Hizbullah and damage its operational capabilities before the world steps in and stops the fighting, senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said Saturday night.
The officials noted positively that Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora had said Saturday at a press conference that his government would reassert government authority over all Lebanese territory - an allusion to the possibility of deploying the Lebanese army in south Lebanon, which is effectively controlled by Hizbullah.
Senior sources in the Prime Minister's Office said that dislodging Hizbullah from southern Lebanon and getting the government in Beirut to assert its authority over the area as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1559 were among the primary goals of the IDF's current campaign. However, the officials said, the two abducted IDF soldiers also needed to be returned.
"It is a good plan," one senior diplomatic official said of Saniora's statement. "The big question is whether he has the ability to do it."
The official said the deployment of Lebanon's army south would be a good way out of the crisis. "But Israel would also like more time to inflict more damage on Hizbullah's operational capabilities," he said.
"It's an excellent declaration but he doesn't need our permission...We have to see what they do and not what they say," Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel's Channel 2 TV. He said Lebanon has to prove it is serious by deploying on the southern border. "A foreign body has entered the area and it's your job to get them out of there," he said.
During the press conference, Saniora - his voice shaking with emotion - called for an immediate cease-fire brokered by the United Nations. "We call for an immediate and comprehensive cease-fire under United Nations auspices," he said in a televised speech aired on local and Arab satellite television channels.
Saniora criticized Hizbullah without naming the group, saying Lebanon "cannot rise and get back on its feet if its government is the last to know." "The government alone has the legitimate right to decide on matters of peace and war because it represents the will of the Lebanese people," he said.
"We call for working to extend the state's authority over all its territories in south Lebanon, in cooperation with the United Nations, and working to recover all Lebanese territories and exercising full sovereignty of the state over those territories."
The assessment in Jerusalem of a 48-72 hour window of opportunity for further military action came as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz met Saturday evening in Tel Aviv to approve further action against Hizbullah. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected in Jerusalem Sunday, as is a high-level United Nations delegation dispatched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
In addition, Jerusalem is keeping a careful eye on declarations coming out of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, a meeting of EU leaders Monday, and the UN Security Council.
So far, one senior diplomatic official said, Israel has been able to fend off a "collapse on the diplomatic front." The official noted favorably the comments made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair Friday, in which he refused to condemn Israel, and US President George Bush's comments at the G8 summit during which he placed responsibility for the situation fully on Hizbullah's shoulders.
Although many statements coming from foreign ministries around the world called for Israeli restraint and for the use of proportionate force, Foreign Ministry officials said that this was all within the framework of "agreed upon language that the EU is recycling - old formulas of restraint from both sides, and ideas of moral equivalency. But if you look at the basic components of the statements, Israel's main interests are being preserved - calls for Lebanon to implement Security Council Resolution 1559, and the release of the soldiers."
In addition, senior diplomatic officials said a significant anti-Hizbullah line has emerged in the Arab world that goes beyond Egypt and Jordan, and that there was anger at Hizbullah for destabilizing the region and plunging it into a crisis without any coordination with the Arab world.
Sharp rifts among Arab foreign ministers appeared at an emergency meeting in Cairo, with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal calling Hizbullah's actions "unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible," and said they have set the whole region back years, "and we cannot simply accept them."
This position was reportedly accepted by representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
In his address, Saniora declared Lebanon a "disaster-stricken country" and accused Israel of executing an "immoral and illegitimate collective punishment" on the Lebanese people. He appealed for national unity and spoke to the Lebanese people, saying, "We will surpass the ordeal, and we will face up to the challenge. We will rebuild what the enemy has destroyed as we always did."
AP contributed to this report.