By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006; A08
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."
Rice later described the Lebanese leader, a former finance minister, as "depressed," then corrected herself and said he was "emotional." So was Rice.
Fearing the bombing would scuttle her week-long effort and trigger even deeper anger in the Middle East, the secretary huddled with senior staff members, including Welch, deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes and policy planning chief Stephen Krasner. She called President Bush -- the first of three conversations she had with him Sunday. She also called national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. She then decided to make a statement.
Appearing shaken, Rice spoke shortly after noon. "I am deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life in the bombing in Lebanon this morning," she said. "Too many innocent people -- Lebanese and Israeli -- have suffered. Too many people have lost their lives."
Normally stoic and increasingly forceful in her public briefings in recent months, Rice acknowledged that emotions were running "understandably high." She described the consequences of Israel's attack as "awful" and noted that she was "saddened" that the site was also the place where dozens of civilians had died in an Israeli attack a decade ago. "It's time to get to a cease-fire," she said.
But Rice also denied that the United States bore any responsibility for not demanding an immediate cease-fire when most European and Arab allies did so several days ago. The administration, she said, was working harder than any other party to stop the violence. "We are making real progress on a political framework and believe the parties are coming together on this aspect," she told reporters. "We are already doing really what is at the human limitation to try to get to an end of this conflict."
What she did not yet say was that she was abandoning her diplomatic mission in the region -- and going home Monday. Just after 3 p.m., reporters traveling with Rice were told she would give a brief statement Monday morning and then they would all leave.
Rice spent the afternoon making more calls -- to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Israeli officials, senior State Department staff, and Bush again. At least twice during the afternoon, two of Olmert's advisers -- Dov Weisglass and Shalom Tourgeman -- got back to Rice to say Hezbollah had deployed missiles near the sites that had been attacked, according to U.S. officials.
At 5:30 p.m., Rice went back to see Olmert. They met for roughly an hour and a half. U.S. officials refused to disclose the outcome. Rice had dinner with the Israeli foreign minister -- with whom she had breakfasted -- and then talked to Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, co-host of a conference on Lebanon in Rome on Wednesday.
At 8:15 p.m., two senior administration officials came to the press room. "It's easy to be frustrated in a situation like this," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Now the question is, how do we compose this in a manner that can move things forward toward the goals we always set before?"
The 24-hour period ended -- and then the situation started to turn again.
About midnight Sunday, State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli summoned Rice's small press corps. "Israel has agreed to a 48-hour suspension of aerial activity in south Lebanon while it investigates today's tragic incident in Qana," he announced. "During this time, Israel will coordinate with the United Nations to allow a 24-hour period of safe passage for all residents of south Lebanon who wish to leave. The United States welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help to relieve the suffering of the children and families of south Lebanon."