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(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Jerusalem Tuesday night for an international conference on Lebanon in Rome without a cease-fire or a date of return, but with an Israeli commitment to allow an airlift of humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
Israeli officials said that during her two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the last 10 minutes of which were held one on one, she did not level any pressure on Israel to end the offensive against Hizbullah.
She also told Olmert that although difficult, it would be possible to put together an international force to move into southern Lebanon to help the Lebanese army implement UN Security Council Resolution 1559, including gaining control of southern Lebanon from Hizbullah.
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said that Israel, which is not taking part in the Rome conference, wanted to see "more energized international efforts" to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1559 - the principles laid out at the recent G8 summit - emerge from the meeting.
The issue of the international force - what its mandate will be and which countries will send troops - is expected to be a major component of the discussions. Among the leading candidates for sending troops to such a multinational force are EU countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Britain, as well as Turkey, Jordan and Egypt.
A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said that Israel did not want to take part in the discussions in Rome, largely because of a fear that it would come under a greater deal of pressure at the meeting to declare an immediate cease-fire.
Neither Syria nor Iran, both of which exert a great deal of influence inside Lebanon, will be attending the conference, either.
Those taking part in the conference, the so-called Lebanon Core Group established last year to help reconstruct Lebanon, include Britain, Canada, the EU, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the United Nations, the United States and the World Bank.
According to officials in Olmert's office, Rice and Olmert discussed the conference at length and various ideas to end the crisis.
According to the officials, Israel and the US agree that any such settlement would have to be based on the principles of the G8 declaration and on the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559.
"We have a framework for a way forward, which is of course Resolution 1559, which was also expressed in the G8 Statement," Rice said before meeting Olmert. "Its implementation will help to bring stability, and it will help to bring peace, and it will help a democratic Lebanon to fully emerge. I have no doubts that there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib, and we must not let that happen, either."
Rice repeated that the US had no interest in returning the situation to the "status quo ante in which extremists at any time can decide to take innocent life hostage again, by using their missiles or using their capabilities."
Rice said she had no desire to "be back in three weeks or three months or six months when, once again, extremists have decided to use their advantages to destabilize the peace."
In her prepared comments, Rice touched on the severe humanitarian crisis facing the Lebanese and said this would also be dealt with at the Rome conference.
Olmert, according to his office, told Rice that Israel would "expand the humanitarian corridors" to assist the Lebanese population and would allow planes carrying humanitarian assistance to land at Beirut International Airport, create a land corridor from Israel to Lebanon to transfer international assistance to the Lebanese, and continue to allow humanitarian assistance to arrive via the seaports in Beirut, Sidon and Tyre.
Olmert also said that a team of international military experts would meet with Israeli military officials to find the most efficient way of operating these humanitarian corridors.
Olmert, in his statement before the meeting, told Rice that Israel was "using the basic, elementary rights of self-defense against terrorist organizations, both in the South and in the North, and we will have to continue to fight against these terrorist organizations."
He stressed that Israel's fight was not with the Lebanese government or the Lebanese people but with Hizbullah.
Following her meeting with Olmert, Rice also met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who said that in their meeting he raised the idea of complementing an international military force in Lebanon with an international civilian one there to help reconstruct the country and, as such, keep the Iranians out.
From the Peretz meeting, Rice traveled to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The idea behind an international civilian force, Peretz said, was to "prevent the possibility of an influx of Iranian money and manpower that could take advantage of the crisis for themselves and develop deep inroads among the population." Peretz, who first raised the idea Sunday of the possibility of a NATO-led military force in Lebanon, said such a force was critical to reinstate order but that it must not be like UNIFIL, which he characterized as "completely ineffective."
Israeli diplomatic officials said Tuesday that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had decided to extend UNIFILS's mandate at the end of the month only by one month, and not the ordinary six, a sign that a different type or force would soon be taking its place.
Annan, who is calling for an immediate cease-fire, deployment of an international force and the release of the two captive IDF soldiers, arrived in Rome Tuesday ahead of the meeting.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the deployment of a new international force was a difficult but crucial part of an overall solution to end Lebanon's political instability. Solana on Tuesday proposed a force made up of troops from Europe, Turkey and some Arab states.
Also on Tuesday, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said his country would consider playing a major role in peacekeeping - but only if it had a strong UN mandate that would define its role and the rules of engagement.
That appears to be the crux of the problem: Any international force without the power to react to renewed outbursts of violence or to strike back if it found itself under threat would be as impotent as the current UN peacekeepers and would be unlikely to succeed at keeping Hizbullah away from the Israeli border.
NATO officials, meanwhile, said it would be difficult for the alliance to "scrounge up" the 10,000 troops they estimated would be needed initially to secure a cease-fire. They pointed to the alliance's existing commitments, such as Afghanistan and Kosovo, which will soon draw more than 40,000 troops from member countries.
Major contributors to past NATO deployments have been noncommittal on whether they would be prepared to participate to any mission in Lebanon, perhaps as a reaction to the escalating guerrilla war in Afghanistan.
"At the moment, I can't see it," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Tuesday, after meeting with his French and Polish counterparts, that a cease-fire must be in place before international troops are considered for Lebanon. "With or without German troops, the question of whether there is a peace mission will only come once there is a cease-fire," Jung said.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also said Tuesday that Canada would prefer not to send troops to the Middle East as part of a NATO intervention force. His Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay is expected to bring that message to Rome.
Yaakov Katz and AP contributed to this report.