For Rice, a Painful 24 Hours

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006

JERUSALEM, July 30 -- The bad news for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started Saturday night -- the beginning of one of the worst 24-hour periods since she took office 18 months ago.

During an hour-long tête-à-tête at his official residence here, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel wanted at least another 10 to 14 days to continue its military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israeli officials said. The Bush administration, for all its support of Israel's mission to cripple the Iranian-supported Shiite Muslim militia, was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the costs of Israel's response to the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, according to U.S. officials.

But Rice also came out of the session thinking she was making progress on the political front. Israel was moving closer to accepting a paper Rice presented -- what U.S. officials call a "framework" -- that contained terms for an end to hostilities. It would form the basis for a new U.N. Security Council resolution to be proposed later this week, she hoped. She would also use it as the basis for talks Sunday on a trip to Beirut, which she had planned but not yet announced, U.S. officials said.

Then, shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday , as Rice slept, some five hours after seeing Olmert, Israeli warplanes bombed civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana, killing at least 57 people, including women and children.

Rice did not learn of the attack until midmorning, during one-on-one talks with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz in a meeting room on the 10th floor of Jerusalem's David Citadel Hotel. She was "reiterating our strong concern" about civilians killed during the hostilities, she said later. But Peretz did not mention the attack, nor had Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni over breakfast.

Rice found out via e-mail. It came from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch got the message and interrupted the meeting to tell her, U.S. officials said.

Rice was "sickened" by the report, a close aide said. "What is this?" she asked Peretz.

Israel was looking into it, Peretz responded, according to U.S. officials. Peretz said he would get back to her. The meeting ended within 15 minutes.

En route to the Middle East last Sunday, in a message repeated in every briefing on the flight, Rice had said the United States was urging Israel "to use restraint and be concerned about civilian populations, innocent civilians and civilian infrastructure." The United States had feared the impact of more civilian deaths on the fragile Lebanese government and a potential backlash in the Arab world.

At 10:29 Sunday morning, Rice made a difficult telephone call. In a conversation with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, she expressed her condolences. They both agreed she should abort her trip.

Versions vary on who made the decision. At a news conference, Siniora said, "There is no place on this sad morning for any discussion other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, as well as an international investigation into the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now."

In her own subsequent briefing to reporters traveling with her, Rice said, "In the wake of the tragedy that the people and the government of Lebanon are dealing with today, I decided to postpone my discussions in Beirut. In any case, my work today is here."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company