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US Middle East Diplomacy Is at A Critical Juncture

Top diplomats from around the world have failed to reach agreement on an immediate ceasefire in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon. At an international conference in Rome this week, the European Union pushed for an immediate ceasefire to end the fighting, but U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice underscored the U.S. position that a cessation of hostilities must come with conditions so that peace is “sustainable.”

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Philip Jelie, Washington bureau chief for Le Figaro, says France agrees with Washington that Hezbollah is the cause of the problem and U.N. Resolution 1559 should be implemented, meaning that Hezbollah should be disarmed. But France puts “far more emphasis” on the urgency of a ceasefire than the Bush administration does.

Earlier this week Secretary Rice undertook a major diplomatic venture to help diffuse the Middle East crisis, meeting with political leaders in Beirut, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. In Beirut, Secretary Rice announced $30 million in humanitarian aid for the victims of the conflict. Commenting on Secretary Rice’s trip, Mr. Jelie says he sees little point in going to Lebanon “just to extend humanitarian aid,” when the most urgent need is for a ceasefire.

At the Rome meeting, participants also agreed on the need for an international force in Lebanon under a U.N. mandate that has a strong and robust capability to help bring about peace. However, while in Beirut, Secretary’s Rice’s suggestion of an international force met with skepticism by Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite with close ties to Hezbollah. He warned that the guerrilla group is not likely to accept a foreign military presence in southern Lebanon.

In Israel, Secretary Rice met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said Israel would allow planes carrying humanitarian aid to land at Beirut airport. He indicated that Israel would continue its offensive to disarm Hezbollah and to free two Israeli solders captured by the militia earlier this month. Rami Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star, says most people in Lebanon view Secretary Rice’s perspective on diffusing the Middle East crisis as “biased” in favor of Israel. But he thinks that Lebanon would accept an international force - if it was designed to respond to the needs of the Lebanese as well as to those of Israelis.

Nathan Guttman, Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, says most Israelis endorse Secretary Rice’s initiative even though historically Israel has opposed the idea of allowing an international force to control its borders. However, Mr. Guttman points out several practical problems with the plan. Hezbollah would have to agree to disarm, which seems unlikely, and the Europeans would most likely need to implement the plan, which no government has as yet signed on to. Furthermore, Israelis worry that a temporary arrangement might drive Hezbollah underground, allowing it to rebuild and attack Israel at a later date.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.