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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minster Ehud Olmert threw cold water Tuesday night on the idea of an international force in Lebanon, while at the same time not ruling out negotiations to end the current crisis.
Olmert, in a meeting with Israeli diplomats, said that the idea of an international force was "a good headline," but that Israel's experience "shows that there is nothing behind it."
Referring to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Olmert said cynically, "Today there is a multinational force in Lebanon, and we are seeing what they do. I want to be careful about this, and I think it is premature to talk about it."
He also said that he did not rule out negotiations, as long as they are not held with Hizbullah and are based on the principles of an unconditional release of the abducted Israeli solders, and UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that calls for a dismantling of Hizbullah and an extension the Lebanese government's sovereignty throughout the country.
He said that the start of these negotiations, however, would not end the military operation. This meeting was followed later in the evening in Haifa with a meeting with 60 heads of regional and local councils in the north.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Tuesday that preventing Syria's re-supply of arms to Hizbullah, the total disarmament of that group, and a complete overhaul of the UN forces in south Lebanon were among Israel's requirements for a cease-fire.
Livni, according to officials in her office, made these demands in a meeting with a visiting United Nations delegation headed by Vijay Nambiar, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special political adviser.
Regarding the re-supply of arms, Livni told the representatives that there would be a need for the prevention of arms supply to Hizbullah by land, sea or air.
Israel, she said, would also demand "a total disarmament of Hizbullah." She also said it was no longer enough to move the organization beyond the Litani River, and that given the range of Hizbullah's missiles, merely moving Hizbullah out of south Lebanon was no longer effective.
"They can now fire from Beirut," she said.
While not ruling out the much-touted idea of an international presence in southern Lebanon to help the Lebanese army gain control of the area, Livni made clear that Israel did not see UNIFIL as the vehicle for such a force. Israel's "past experience with UNIFIL was not satisfactory," she said at a press conference after meeting with the delegation.
Livni made clear to the UN delegation that Israel wanted to see the Lebanese army move its forces southward and exert its authority over the whole country. However, she said, "If for a limited time there is a need to strengthen the Lebanese army, so that the force in south Lebanon will be effective and prevent Hizbullah from returning there, then Israel would entertain different ideas of how to constitute that force."
In Brussels, Annan continued to push the idea of a beefed-up UN force. "I would expect a force that is considerably larger than the 2,000 (UNIFIL) force that is already there, I would expect a force that would have a modified and different concept of operation, and with different capabilities," he said.
Israeli diplomatic officials said that Israel had not given its consent to any plan for an international monitoring force, and there were various ideas being drawn up about its size, makeup and mandate.
The UN delegation, after meeting with Livni, went to the Prime Minister's Office for a meeting with Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman. The prime minister, who originally did not plan to meet with the delegation, came into the meeting toward the end and said that Israel would continue fighting Hizbullah until the two abducted soldiers were returned, and until security was assured for Israeli citizens.
Livni, at her press conference, said, "the time for diplomacy has arrived." Nevertheless, she said that the diplomatic process "was not intended to reduce the window of opportunity for military operations, but will take place in parallel. The military objectives are to hit Hizbullah's infrastructure and physical strength. The diplomatic process is not intended to reduce the time available for the IDF's operations, but as an extension of it in order to avoid the need for additional operations in the future." Concern in Jerusalem that the "window of opportunity" available to deal Hizbullah a fatal blow was narrowing, lifted a bit Wednesday, as it appeared that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would not arrive in Jerusalem this week. Nevertheless, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is scheduled to arrive for talks on Wednesday.
Livni said that there was a common understanding in the world that a cease-fire in Lebanon was not enough, and that there was also the need for the "unconditional return of the [abducted] soldiers and the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, in order to keep Hizbullah from establishing itself as the regional provocateur." She said that a cease-fire would only be effective if it created a situation where what the country has endured over the last week would not repeat itself in the future.
"The suffering the Israeli population has gone through has to be translated into ways of preventing this in the future," she said.
UN officials would not release details of their proposals, saying the issue was delicate, and that publicly discussing the proposals at this time could torpedo them. UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen sufficed with telling reporters that the delegation had a "good" conversation with Livni and presented "concrete ideas" on how to end the current crisis.
One Israeli diplomatic official said that Israel was only interested in a cease-fire that would fundamentally change the status quo that exited in southern Lebanon before last week's attack.
The Bush Administration echoed this sentiment in Washington, where White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday, "A cease-fire that would leave intact a terrorist infrastructure would be unacceptable."