Rice Drops In on Lebanon's Siniora

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes a surprise visit to Beirut, where she meets with Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced stop in Beirut today. She's on her first trip to the Middle East since fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah 13 days ago. She met with the Lebanese Prime Minister and with other key figures, and she pledged U.S. support for getting humanitarian aid into Lebanon. Secretary Rice has now gone on to Jerusalem for meetings that will include Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

NPR's Mike Shuster is in Jerusalem and joins us now from a filing center after the Secretary of State's visit. Mike, what more do we know about what Secretary Rice discussed in Beirut?

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Well, Robert, she was in Beirut for five hours and the meetings have been described as tense. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whom the U.S. does support, said the bombardment by Israel had set Lebanon back 50 years and he said he wants a swift ceasefire. Reportedly, Rice told the Lebanese Prime Minister that before any ceasefire can be established, Hezbollah must pull back from the border with Israel. The Lebanese army would take Hezbollah's place there and Hezbollah would have to free the two Israeli soldiers it's been holding since July 12. This isn't a message that the Lebanese leaders wanted to hear.

She also met with the Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Beri. Beri is reported to have rejected Rice's proposals outright. He's close to Hezbollah's leadership and also close to Syria. All sides in the conflict, the Israelis, the Lebanese and the U.S., believe Syria can play an instrumental role in finding a way to stop the fighting.

Later, President Bush announced that U.S. helicopters and ships will start to get humanitarian aid into Lebanon. Some of what Rice discussed today in Beirut had to do with that. And we have late word that the U.S. will contribute $30 million toward aid for Lebanon.

SIEGEL: Now, back to the question of a ceasefire, Mike. Secretary Rice and the Bush administration have until now resisted the pressure to support a ceasefire. Her deputy, Undersecretary Burns, said on this program that there should be no ceasefire that leaves Hezbollah in a position that resembles victory. Is that still the U.S. position or is there any movement there?

SHUSTER: No, there doesn't seem to be any movement. That still is the U.S. position. The U.S. is not supporting a ceasefire yet because the Bush administration views a ceasefire now as unenforceable. That has been Rice's view since the conflict started and it was underlined today by the White House spokesman, Tony Snow.

Rice did say in Lebanon that a ceasefire is urgently needed but so far the U.S. is not advancing, at least in public, any clear sequential plan to establish a ceasefire. The Israeli army has said it wants another week to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon. It's been intensifying its ground operations along the border with Lebanon so it doesn't look like there will be a move toward establishing a ceasefire until the U.S. gets much more energetic in pursuing it, and that's not happening right now.

SIEGEL: What about the idea of a multinational force to be inserted between Israel and Hezbollah in south Lebanon? Something in the past, in the very recent past, Israel was against and now they seem receptive to.

SHUSTER: You're right about that. In fact, a lot of people are talking about a multinational force. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, talked about it today. The German and French foreign ministers were here in Jersualem over the weekend and they discussed it with Israeli leaders. And in fact the Israelis do say they want a force now, which is a turnabout from their long-established policy.

But the Israelis want it with peace, they say. They want a force that is well armed, put in place between Israel and Hezbollah, and some Israeli leaders are talking about possibly establishing it along the Syrian border with Lebanon to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah. But the problem is how to get from here to there. It's a long and complex process and it hasn't really started yet.

SIEGEL: So how would you rate the prospect of diplomacy stopping the fighting in Lebanon some time soon?

SHUSTER: Right now, this week, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. Secretary Rice will be in Jersualem only tomorrow. She'll be meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and the leader of the Palestinians, and then on to Rome for a conference on Wednesday. But it doesn't look like there's going to be any real movement this week.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mike Shuster, speaking to us from Jersualem. Thank you, Mike.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Robert.

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