Giving diplomacy a chance, Rice heads for Mideast

story.rice.ap.gifRice will visit Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. She will also attend an international conference in Rome, Italy, on crafting a peace agreement and shoring up Lebanon’s government.

Rice did not plan to meet with Hezbollah or with Syrian leaders.

Syria is willing to engage in dialogue with the United States to solve the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel, officials told Reuters on Sunday.

The immediate solution to the crisis lies in a cease-fire brokered by international powers, to be followed by diplomacy to address Hezbollah’s demands, including a prisoner exchange, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad told Reuters.

A quick cease-fire “will be a false promise if it returns us to the status quo,” Rice said on Friday. Hezbollah is the source of the problem in Lebanon and must be disarmed, she said.

Rice will insist that first there must be a fundamental change on the ground, and that Hezbollah must be weakened, before the area can truly be stabilized and the next diplomatic stage begin, senior administration officials told CNN.

If Israeli troops invade Lebanon and come within 12 miles (20 km) of Damascus, Syria will not sit back, Syria’s official news agency, SANA, reported on Sunday.

Information Minister Mohsen Bilal made the comments Sunday to a Spanish newspaper, ABC, after a visit with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos in Madrid, SANA said.

Israel would accept a multinational peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon as a solution to the current Mideast crisis, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said on Sunday.

Peretz made the suggestion during a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

The force would have to be strong, unlike the current United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) contingent now in southern Lebanon, the spokesman said.

Israel’s military operation in Lebanon does not constitute an invasion of that country, but a series of restricted missions, Peretz said.

Israel has continuously stressed that it has no plans to reoccupy southern Lebanon, after dismantling its security zone in Lebanon six years ago. Israel has also said its military operation is a temporary mission to dismantle the Hezbollah organization.

President Bush and Rice were scheduled to meet with the Saudi foreign minister and the chief of the Saudi National Security Council before Rice left on her trip.

The meeting would be an opportunity to “strategize with a key partner in the region on a diplomatic solution that will address the root causes of violence and terror in the region,” aides told CNN.

Bush on Saturday slammed Syrian and Iranian support for Hezbollah and underscored U.S. support for the Israeli reaction to the provocations by the Shiite guerrillas in Lebanon.

“For many years, Syria has been a primary sponsor of Hezbollah and it has helped provide Hezbollah with shipments of Iranian-made weapons,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.

Pope Benedict XVI renewed his appeal for an immediate cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon and encouraged all sides to start negotiations, The Associated Press reported on Sunday.

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