By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A10
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday announced plans for talks with Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese leaders as part of a new U.S. diplomatic effort in the Middle East conflict, but warned that the United States would not support a cease-fire that fell short of disarming Hezbollah and restoring Lebanese government control throughout the besieged country.
On the eve of her foray into the crisis, Rice warned against the "false promise" of an immediate end to hostilities that would only trigger more violence "five or nine months" down the road.
"There are no answers that are easy, nor are there any quick fixes," Rice said at a news conference outlining talks scheduled in Israel on Monday and a meeting Wednesday in Rome with U.N., European and Arab officials on Lebanon.
"What I won't do is go to some place and try to get a cease-fire that I know isn't going to last," she said.
Rice announced the U.S. initiative as convoys of thousands of Israeli troops were poised for a ground offensive on the nation's 50-mile border with Lebanon. Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon called the expected ground incursion a "limited" mission designed to "mop up" Hezbollah strongholds and weapons sites.
He said that Israel would not replicate its 1982 invasion, which involved a blitzkrieg offensive through the southern third of Lebanon to Beirut, but that he expected repeated Israeli strikes with ground troops and special forces in what he called "in-and-out operations."
With the conflict escalating, France, which once ruled Lebanon as a mandate power, yesterday demanded that the European Union act more strenuously to promote a cease-fire. President Jacques Chirac issued an open letter in Paris urging the EU to dispatch its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, for urgent talks with Israeli and other Middle East leaders.
Terje Roed-Larsen, a U.N. envoy for Lebanon, expressed concern yesterday that the Israeli military campaign could doom Lebanon's fledgling democracy.
"Lebanese Prime Minister [Fuad] Siniora is under colossal pressure," he said. "If the situation continues and indeed escalates, of course that pressure will mount. We cannot rule out a collapse of the government. This would be a tragedy for Lebanon."
For now, Washington is rebuffing pressure from allies to do more diplomatically, and Rice turned back questions about whether the U.S. mission was coming too late. "I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling, and it wouldn't have been clear what I was shuttling to do," she said.
The Bush administration is instead trying to develop a three-pronged plan that will address the political, economic and security aspects of an eventual resolution, Rice said. But she tried to lower expectations of what would be achieved during her trip.
"A cease-fire would be a false promise if it simply returns us to the status quo, allowing terrorists to launch attacks at the time and terms of their choosing, and to threaten innocent people, Arab and Israeli, throughout the region," she told reporters at the State Department. "That would be a guarantee of future violence."
The goal is to ensure that southern Lebanon is not a haven for private armies that attack neighboring states and "throw the whole country into chaos," Rice said.
At the United Nations earlier yesterday, Rice, Secretary General Kofi Annan and Security Council members met to discuss terms for a new international military force to deploy in Lebanon. Rice later said it would have to be a "robust" contingent to ensure that Hezbollah could not function as a military force again.
But there are deep fissures emerging over the mandate of its mission -- and whether it would be dispatched to simply separate the warring parties or to tackle the dismantling of Hezbollah's well-armed militia. The U.N. force's structure, size and mandate will be discussed further in Rome, when Rice meets with the new Lebanon contact group.
Rice will focus heavily on economic and humanitarian issues during this first visit. Shortly before leaving Washington tomorrow, she and President Bush will meet with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to discuss mobilizing funds to reconstruct Lebanon and a potential donors' conference when the fighting ends, U.S. officials said.
Washington also is preparing to contribute humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, Rice said.
Politically, the United States wants to prop up Siniora's beleaguered government through an economic package, by beefing up the Lebanese army so it can deploy through the Hezbollah-held south along the Israeli border, and by eventually implementing U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the dismantling of militias in Lebanon. Lebanese officials will be part of the Rome talks, Rice said.
On her trip, Rice will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, U.S. officials said. But in a noticeable gap in her trip, Rice will not go to the Arab world, because Arab leaders are concerned about hosting a U.S. visit that will not include a call for an end to hostilities.
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were all uninterested in hosting a visit at this juncture, according to U.S. and Middle East officials.
"The issue is not where they meet but what happens," said a senior Arab diplomat who requested anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. "It's important to have substance. "
The diplomatic effort comes as conditions in Lebanon deteriorate. In New York, U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator Jan Egeland said that access to many of the nearly 500,000 Lebanese in need of assistance has been severely hampered by bombing of roads and fighting. He has asked Israel and Lebanon for security guarantees and safe passage for aid workers through new humanitarian aid corridors so that food, medical and other supplies could be moved by land, sea and air.
"The war, the terror, the attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure has to stop in Lebanon, in northern Israel, as it has to stop in Gaza," Egeland told the Security Council. "Too many children, women, elderly and other civilians have already lost their lives or are struggling to survive from their wounds."
Washington is pressing to keep the focus on Hezbollah as the source of the problem. The United States and Britain pushed for a Security Council statement that would express concern for the "deteriorating situation" in the Middle East and condemn "extremist forces" and their backers, an implicit reference to Syria and Iran.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, two leading Senate Democrats called on the White House to name a special envoy to deal with the Lebanon crisis so that Rice can focus on a range of other U.S. foreign policy challenges, including Iran's nuclear program and North Korea's missile tests.
Staff writer Colum Lynch contributed to this report.