Middle East

Rice Seeks 'Urgent and Enduring' Mideast Peace

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Israel for talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Before their private meeting, Olmert said Israel would continue its fight against Hezbollah. Rice repeated her view that the solution to the current crisis must not return to status quo before the fighting began two weeks ago. Rice also met with Palestinian officials in the West Bank.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And sitting in for Steve Inskeep, I'm Don Gonyea.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Jerusalem today on a diplomatic mission to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants.

Coming up, a report on how Syria figures in that equation.

First, what came out of Rice's stop yesterday in Beirut, and what could come out of her meeting today with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?

Before their private meeting, Olmert said Israel would continue its fight against Hezbollah. Rice repeated her view that the solution to the current crisis cannot be returning to the status quo before the fighting began two weeks ago, with Hezbollah on Israel's border, still armed with missiles.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): The people of this region, Israeli, Lebanese, indeed Palestinian, have lived too long in fear and in terror and in violence. A durable solution will be one that strengthens the forces of peace and the forces of democracy.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Shuster joins us now from Jerusalem. And Mike, so far no talk of a ceasefire there, and if Secretary Rice is not pushing the Israelis to establish a ceasefire, what does the U.S. want?

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Well, Secretary Rice is proposing a kind of a package deal that would establish a buffer zone of almost 20 miles inside southern Lebanon. A multinational force with the firepower to enforce the peace would be inserted there. This would be done with the cooperation of the Lebanese army, in order eventually to give Lebanon's army the opportunity to actually control this part of the country, which it hasn't controlled for decades. And, perhaps most difficult to achieve in this package, Hezbollah would have to agree to pull back some 20 miles from the border with Israel and give up its missiles. All this is supposed to take place simultaneous with a ceasefire being established.

By the way, there's no talk of U.S. troops participating in this force, should it come into being, given that the United States is so overstretched in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And how do the Israelis view this? They've been very skeptical of outside forces coming into that area.

SHUSTER: The Israelis view it very favorably. The Israelis like this approach because it puts no pressure on them at the moment to stop their offensive against Hezbollah. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today that Israel would not hesitate to take the most severe measures against Hezbollah, and Israeli military leaders say they need as much as another week to complete their operations, because indeed, Hezbollah has proven to be a much more resilient guerrilla force than many here expected.

Israel's support for multinational troops though, is a reversal of many decades of policy that looked skeptically on forces coming from outside to establish or keep the peace here. But, Israel's government wants to make sure any international force is well armed and capable of confronting any military challenge it might face, and the Israelis would also like this force to be deployed along Lebanon's border with Syria to stop any attempt to re-arm Hezbollah that might come along later on.

MONTAGNE: And, the Lebanese, Rice was in Beirut for several hours yesterday meeting with the Lebanese prime minister and other officials, how did they respond to the American ideas?

SHUSTER: Not favorably at all and that's not surprising. The Lebanese want a ceasefire because they want the Israeli attacks to stop as soon as possible. Lebanon's prime minister told Rice that yesterday. He said that Israel's bombardment had set his country back 50 years, and he wants a swift ceasefire. The speaker of the Lebanese parliament, who is close to both Hezbollah and Syria, rejected Rice's ideas soon after she left Beirut. Rice insisted the U.S. wants to end the violence urgently. She's been saying that, but she also argues that an immediate ceasefire would leave in place the conditions in southern Lebanon that led to the conflict in the first place.

MONTAGNE: Well, if Lebanon is not onboard, how realistic is the American approach?

SHUSTER: It's a good question. Nobody has a sense that this is an especially realistic approach, at least so far. There could be more diplomacy later on. And obviously, as Israel continues its offensive, that could change the equation as well. But at this point, only one side is in favor of this plan, the Israelis. The Lebanese are not and don't seem to be willing to consider it very seriously.

And also, very big questions remain about the plan itself. Among them, how is Hezbollah to be disarmed, will they willingly give up their missiles? The implication appears to be they will agree to disarm themselves, because they continue to become under heavy military pressure from Israel. And then there's the question of whether any nations are really willing to send troops into the turmoil here, under the conditions that Rice and Olmert are proposing, because the foreign troops could easily end up engaging in military operations of their own to maintain the peace.

MONTAGNE: And from here, Rice heads to Rome?

SHUSTER: She heads to Rome tonight. There will be a multinational conference on Lebanon in Rome tomorrow, involving the U.N., a number of Arab countries, European countries, the United States, the Russians as well.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

NPR's Mike Shuster speaking from Jerusalem.

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