Rice: Conditions must be right for cease-fire

story.rice.sun.gifRice spoke with reporters en route to the Middle East, where she is scheduled to meet with Israeli officials Monday evening.

“We believe that a cease-fire is urgent,” Rice told reporters on a flight from Washington to a refueling stop in Ireland. “It is important, however, to have conditions that will make it sustainable.”

Rice’s visit follows trips to the region by European and U.N. diplomats who joined Lebanon’s calls for a cease-fire. The United States has not called for an end to the fighting, arguing that leaving Hezbollah in place on Israel’s northern border would only make further conflict inevitable.

Rice said she has been consulting with U.N. and Israeli officials about elements of a cease-fire that would ensure Lebanon had control of its country.

“The really important thing here is that whatever we do has to contribute to Lebanon’s regaining sovereignty over all its territory,” said Rice.

“It’s just very important that we work urgently, but that we also work in a way that is going to push this forward, not backwards.”

Rice is scheduled to 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 does not plan to meet with Hezbollah or with Syrian leaders.

Marking the level of diplomatic leverage being applied to this trip, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch and deputy national security advisor Elliot Abrams are traveling with Rice and will stay in the region as the secretary of state continues to Rome and Kuala Lumpur later in the week.

“We intend to treat the government of Lebanon with the respect that it deserves and also with the great desire … to see it able to extend its sovereignty over its territory,” Rice said.

Saudis urge cease-fire

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said Sunday that he urged President Bush to call for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Prince Saud al-Faisal met with Bush ahead of Rice’s trip.

Al-Faisal said he brought a message from King Abdullah “about putting a stop to the bleeding in Lebanon.”

“We requested a cease-fire to allow for the cessation of hostility, which would allow for the building of the forces of Lebanon in order to establish its sovereignty over the whole of its territory,” he told reporters.

“We agree on the importance of stopping the fighting so the Lebanese government can extend its influence all over its territory,” al-Faisal said.

“We are not going to enter into details about this and I’m not going to say anything or be pushed into saying anything that would prejudice the secretary’s trip and the negotiations that she is going to undertake.”

Israeli artillery and warplanes have been pounding Lebanon since July 12, when Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others in a cross-border raid. Hezbollah also has fired hundreds of rockets into northern Israel. Lebanese authorities reported 271 dead since the conflict began. Israel says 17 of its civilians and 20 of its soldiers have died in the fighting.

Israel has said that its military operation is a temporary mission to dismantle the Hezbollah organization and that it does not plan to reoccupy southern Lebanon.

Israel open to peacekeeping force

Israel would accept a multinational peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon as a solution to the current 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 United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon contingent now in southern Lebanon, the spokesman said.

While the Saudis have joined other Arab countries in calling for a cease-fire, they also have been critical of Hezbollah for triggering the conflict. Al-Faisal said the central issue in the crisis is the weakness of Lebanon’s government.

“This is what we both agreed was the primary concern of everybody, and everybody who needs to help, who must help, should help,” he said.

He would not comment on a report that the Bush administration was asking his government and that of Egypt to pressure Syria and Iran, saying, “We only discussed strengthening Lebanon to extend its sovereignty over its territory.”

The Bush administration has criticized Syria and Iran for their support of Hezbollah.

The U.S. ambassador to Syria was withdrawn after the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a crime that U.N. investigators have linked to Syrian officials.

Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that Damascus would welcome direct talks with the United States on the current crisis.

“What we are calling for is de-escalation, diplomatic engagement and for the United States to restart playing the role it used to play in the past — the role of the broker of peace,” Moustapha said.

The Bush administration has argued that direct talks with Syria would be pointless.

But Sen. Christopher Dodd, a leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration can’t “outsource” its diplomacy. “We have too many issues that we have to resolve that involve the United States and other nations within the region and beyond that,” he told CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.”

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