Rice Faces Growing Obstacles in Diplomatic Mission

Guest host Don Gonyea and Michele Kelemen discuss the goals and problems facing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she begins her trip to the Mideast and Italy, seeking a lasting solution to the problems facing Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese.

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DON GONYEA, host:

President Bush flies to Washington today from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Once back in the Capitol, Mr. Bush will meet Saudi officials and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss the situation in the Middle East. Later, Rice will leave for a round of diplomacy in Israel and Europe.

NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen says that once she arrives, Rice will be looking to have a very frank discussion with Israeli officials.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

The Bush administration, really since the beginning of this, has gone out of the way to say that it supports Israel's right to defend itself, that this was Hezbollah provoking this response. But I think what she's going to need to hear from Israel is how long they think it's going to take to accomplish what their goal is, which is weakening Hezbollah, weakening its military capabilities. The U.S. has given Israel quite some leeway in this, but she's going to want to hear whether they think they're really accomplishing this.

And also, she's been encouraging Israel to exercise restraint. This is, of course, quite important because as this military offensive against Hezbollah continues, there's always a danger of miscalculation, of catastrophic events, and that would really, of course, change our dynamics of our diplomatic efforts.

GONYEA: And she also plans to go to the West Bank. Who is she going to meet with there?

KELEMEN: That's right. Well, she's going to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The U.S. does not recognize Hamas - the Hamas-led government. It won't deal with the Hamas-led government, like Hezbollah considers Hamas a terrorist organization. The U.S. has been really a lead in this international boycott of the Hamas government. So she can only meet with Mahmoud Abbas.

The U.S. has been criticized in the past for not doing enough to support him in his efforts. So this is another front that she's going to have to deal with in this very difficult diplomatic trip.

GONYEA: Secretary Rice is then expected to go to Italy for a conference on the Middle East. She'll encounter some tricky challenges there as well, won't she? Certainly there's kind of that multitude of different views held by Arab countries.

KELEMEN: That's right. It's going to be the Lebanon Core Group, it's called. So there'll be European officials there as well as Arab governments. What the secretary is trying to do is get the support of moderate Arab leaders, the U.S. allies in the region, to really A) put pressure on Syria to stop sending weapons to Hezbollah, because this is an accusation we often hear, that Syria's playing a role in this; but also to help Lebanon's nascent government gain control of its territory.

Secretary Rice has really been playing up this idea that Arab leaders are really as concerned about Hezbollah as she is and that this is one of the root causes of the conflict. The trouble is that she may be talking to Arab officials who have one view. The man on the street, the Arab street, has quite a different view of the situation. And what they're seeing is the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, civilians being killed. And they have a much different perspective of what the core problem is.

So there's a lot of tension within Arab states about what to do. And I think that as long as this conflict goes on, that's going to be more problematic for them. It's going to be harder for the U.S. to keep these Arab states in the fold, so to speak, or to keep them willing to help out. And you might also note that they're meeting in Italy and not in an Arab country. So I think that's a strong signal as well.

GONYEA: So practically speaking, what are the options for U.S. policy in dealing with that particular area?

KELEMEN: Well, what she's going into in this conference in Italy is really to talk about humanitarian relief in Lebanon and also support for the Lebanese government. And that's what she's hoping she can gain a lot of support for on that. The other thing that is being talked about now is the potential for a U.N. or some sort of international force.

Secretary Rice says it's still in the early stages. We're not sure what kind of mandate they're going to have. But presumably it would be to help the Lebanese army move into southern Lebanon and take control of this area now controlled by Hezbollah. So whether or not they'll be willing to move in, how much they can accomplish, what an international force can do, these are all very serious questions that are up in the air now.

GONYEA: NPR Diplomatic Correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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