Image: President Bush, Secretary of State Rice
Eric Draper  /  AP
President Bush meets with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the White House on Monday evening to discuss her recent trip to the Middle East.
updated 8/1/2006 8:45:00 PM ET 2006-08-02T00:45:00

The Bush administration claimed progress Tuesday toward establishing an international peacekeeping force for Lebanon but said no quick cease-fire seemed likely in the 3-week-old war between Israel and Hezbollah.

In New York, United Nations officials announced that nations willing to contribute troops to a peacekeeping force would meet on Thursday. An earlier meeting scheduled for Monday was scrapped after France said there was no point talking about peacekeepers with the war continuing.

The Bush administration provided little detail about what progress might be occurring. The White House said an immediate halt to the bloody fighting "doesn't seem to be in the cards."

"Neither side is headed that way," said presidential spokesman Tony Snow. "What the president is working on and what our allies are working on are providing those conditions for a sustainable cease-fire."

Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers called for Israel and Hezbollah to agree to an “immediate cessation of hostilities” followed by international efforts to get agreement on a sustainable cease-fire.

Peres: Fighting may last ‘a matter of weeks’
Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister, said Israel was nearing a decisive point in battling Hezbollah. Asked how long the fighting might go on, Peres said, "I don't want to say but it's a matter of weeks. Maybe even less."

He said it took awhile for Israel's army to understand what it faced but "now they feel they're in control." Peres met at the White House with President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

The administration credited France, Britain, the Lebanese government and other allies for cooperating with the United States at the U.N. Security Council and through diplomatic channels to make the new security force a reality.

Upbeat on prospects for a "stable and enduring" cease-fire, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said "the diplomacy is moving ahead" and an agreement on how to end the fighting was possible within days, not weeks. "I think we are making progress," Rice said on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "We believe that we are going to be able to have some action in the Security Council in the coming days, and hopefully this week."

Annan announces meeting
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, after meeting with the U.S., British, French, Chinese and Russian ambassadors, urged governments debating Lebanon's future to put aside their differences to help solve the conflict.

Annan then announced the Thursday meeting of governments contributing peacekeeping troops, but late Tuesday a spokesman for France's U.N. mission said France still believes it is too early to talk about troops and will not attend.

The French spokesman, who refused to be identified by name because an official announcement was still forthcoming, said France's view remained unchanged from Monday. That day, France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said, "France is in favor of setting up an international force to implement a political settlement. It is important to have this political settlement before having the force deployed. So it is premature to have such a meeting."

Annan wants nations to lay the groundwork for a force, apparently so it can be deployed as quickly as possible once a political framework to end the fighting is settled.

"He did ask them to set those differences aside and move along quickly on the question of a mandate for the force and the formation of the force, and who's going to be able to give what and which countries will be able to contribute," his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

Envoys acknowledge disagreements
Despite the meeting, diplomats acknowledge that sharp differences remain.

The United States objects to French proposals calling for creation of a multinational peacekeeping force and a new buffer zone empty of either Israeli troops or Hezbollah militants — but only after a halt in fighting. The U.S. wants any force to help the Lebanese army extend its authority throughout southern Lebanon, which is now under Hezbollah's control, and disarm the powerful militia.

While there is wide disagreement over whether to try to compel Israel to accept an immediate cease-fire — the United States supports Israel in taking more time to pummel Hezbollah arsenals — there is consensus building around a peacekeeping force that would be more potent than the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) created in 1978 with a weak mandate.

The Bush administration views a new force as useful in helping Lebanon gain control of its southern region, from which Hezbollah has fought a cross-border war with Israel.

Bush wants link to broader peace plan
President Bush is pressing for a U.N. resolution linking a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah with a broader plan for peace in the Middle East, despite rising international pressure for a simple no-strings-attached halt to the fighting.

State Department spokesman McCormack said the administration wants the resolution to call urgently for an end to the fighting, a lasting solution and an international peace force.

In a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Peres gave qualified endorsement to an international security force. "If the international community thinks the force will help, OK," Peres said.

‘We want to live in peace’
Peres brought a message of resolve to the United States Tuesday, vowing to clear southern Lebanon of Hezbollah militia and their weapons.

Peres said “we will not permit Hezbollah to return to south Lebanon” to attack Israel. Nor, he said, would Israel suspend its bombardment of Hezbollah weapons arsenals under a current partial cease-fire.

At the same time, though, Peres, long an advocate of Israel yielding land for peace, said his government has no intention of reoccupying parts of Lebanon. “We want to live in peace with the Lebanese. They are fine people,” he said.

Peres was due to see Rice at the State Department and provide an updating of the situation and Israel’s military intentions.

Bush “reviewed the diplomatic efforts that the United States is pursuing in our effort to end the current conflict in Lebanon,” National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said afterward. “The next step is to pursue a United Nations Security Council resolution that will establish a sustainable cease-fire on an urgent basis. This process began in New York today.”

Israel’s attack that killed 65 civilians in Qana on Sunday, the deadliest single incident in the Israeli onslaught against Hezbollah militants, prompted Rice to cut short her trip to the region.

‘The root cause of the problem’
Earlier, Bush stood fast by his insistence that any cease-fire be accompanied by the disarming of Hezbollah militia, a return of two kidnapped Israel soldiers and a cessation of support for Hezbollah by the governments of Iran and Syria.

“We want there to be a long-lasting peace, one that is sustainable,” Bush said in a speech in Miami.

And, in an interview with Fox News Channel, Bush acknowledged that the Qana deaths had added pressure on Israel to stop bombing. But, he said, “Stopping for the sake of stopping can be OK, except it won’t address the root cause of the problem.”

McCormack said the “center of gravity in terms of diplomatic activity is, I think, shifting to New York now.”

He said he hoped for a resolution later in the week.

“As for any more durable action, I think that is something that, again, we’re trying to negotiate with our international partners, with the Israeli government, with the Lebanese government and others, so that you have a durable cease-fire that takes place within a political context that a cease-fire supports,” McCormack said.

‘This madness must stop’
But the Bush administration’s resistance to a simple and immediate cease-fire was losing support around the world.

And, although pro-Israel sentiment runs deep in Congress, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., broke with the president on Monday and said Israel’s pounding of Lebanon was hurting, not helping, America’s image in the Middle East.

“The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now,” Hagel said. “This madness must stop.” Hagel has also been critical of the administration’s Iraq policy.

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