By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; A09
MIAMI, July 31 -- President Bush vowed Monday to work for a cease-fire to stop the bloodshed in the Middle East as long as several broad conditions are met, but deliberations at the United Nations quickly became tangled in a dispute between the United States and France over the right approach.
Bush insisted that any cease-fire plan establish Lebanese control over its territory, dispatch a multinational force to create a buffer zone, and require Iran and Syria to stop backing the Hezbollah militia, which is firing rockets at Israeli territory. He made no demands on Israel a day after Israeli bombs killed at least 57 people in a Lebanese village, mostly women and children, and he again rejected calls for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire.
"Stopping for the sake of stopping is -- can be okay, except it won't address the root cause of the problem," Bush said in an interview with Fox News while on a domestic political trip here Monday. The deaths of Lebanese civilians in the village of Qana on Sunday, he added, were "awful. I understand that. But it's also awful that a million Israelis are worried about rockets being fired from their neighbor to the north."
Bush flew back from Florida to have dinner at the White House with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Washington late in the day after a marathon round of shuttle diplomacy in the Mideast, and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.
Rice expressed optimism that a cease-fire resolution would be passed by the U.N. Security Council this week, followed almost immediately by initial deployment of international troops to enforce it.
"This morning as I head back to Washington, I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement," Rice told reporters shortly before leaving Jerusalem. "I am convinced we can achieve both this week."
Yet as her plane made its way across the Atlantic, the fissures between the United States and its allies widened at the United Nations, where a meeting to craft plans for the international force was postponed after France declared it pointless without a political settlement between Israel and Lebanon.
"You know, France is in favor of setting up an international force to implement . . . a political settlement," Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sablière said at the United Nations on Monday. "So it is important to have this political settlement before having the force deployed. And it is very difficult, we think -- premature at least -- to have such a meeting."
France introduced a Security Council resolution on Sunday demanding an immediate cease-fire, and U.S. diplomats worked Monday to draft a competing text. Ambassadors from the United States, France and the other three permanent Security Council members met late in the day to discuss Lebanon, but the United States did not introduce its resolution in hopes of forging a consensus. A European diplomat said U.S., French and British officials would try to merge their ideas over the next 24 hours.
Rice had planned to go to New York for the Security Council discussions and told reporters on her plane she would "push very hard" to win passage of a cease-fire by week's end. "It's time," she said. But after her dinner with Bush, an administration official said it was no longer clear whether Rice would go after all.
The Bush administration envisions a quick, 1-2-3 sequence, with a resolution followed by a cease-fire followed by troop deployment with "near simultaneity," according to a senior State Department official.
"To make this work, you've got to have a force in there very quickly," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. "If everything works perfectly, they will be ready to launch when the resolution is passed to help and support put a cease-fire into effect."
The resolution drafted by the U.S. team would include terms for a cease-fire, outline a set of political principles for a long-term settlement of regional tensions and define a mandate for the international force. The force would back up the Lebanese army as it asserts authority in regions now controlled by Hezbollah and block import of new weapons for the militia.
All armed groups would be prohibited in the zone where the international force is deployed, and no foreign troops except the stabilization force would be allowed in Lebanon. The Lebanese government and army would assume responsibility for disarming militias, with the "appropriate" assistance by the stabilization force, Rice said.
Despite its caution, France along with Spain has been privately approaching governments with U.N. peacekeepers to see whether they would be prepared to serve in a more robust European force, according to a senior diplomat.
But Bush made it clear he does not plan to volunteer U.S. troops. "Probably not, but we would be glad to help, you know, with logistics and/or command and control," he told Fox News. "Most nations understand that we won't have troops there on the ground."
Lebanese officials expressed impatience with the diplomacy. Acting Foreign Minister Tarek Mitri appealed to the Security Council for an immediate cease-fire and an international investigation into the Israeli attack on Qana.
"This is a deliberate massacre against civilians," Mitri told reporters after addressing the council. "The civilians in Qana had been given the choice of either staying in a shelter or leave because they were asked to leave. How could they leave and all the roads are bombarded?"
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a favorite of Bush's, called on the president to step in to stop further Israeli attacks. "More has to be done in terms of exercising real pressure on the Israelis," Siniora told ABC News. "I don't think that what has been done is enough yet."
Bush came under criticism from his own party, too. "The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said in a Senate floor speech. "President Bush must call for an immediate cease-fire. This madness must stop."
The Middle East crisis ended up swamping Bush's two-day trip here to talk about domestic issues and collect money for the fall congressional campaign. He had breakfast with local business leaders, visited the National Hurricane Center, delivered an economic speech, took a boat tour of the Port of Miami, gave a series of interviews and headlined a Republican fundraiser at an exclusive Coral Gables estate.
But he talked about the Middle East at almost every stop. At times, he seemed distracted from his ostensible purpose. At the National Hurricane Center, where he hoped to show that the government is now better prepared than when Katrina devastated New Orleans last year, Bush noted that the peak of hurricane season ends in September, only to be corrected by the center's director, who said it ends in October.
Aides decided not to cancel the trip despite the dramatic developments in the Middle East because they view it as unhealthy to allow the presidency to be consumed by a single issue. But the contrast at times appeared jarring. Bush shared a crab dinner Sunday night with actor Andy Garcia, Miami Dolphins legend Dan Marino and other former football players. And a White House handout on Monday's events was headlined "A Day in Miami," giving the impression of a relaxed summer jaunt.
Throughout the day, Bush defended Israel. "As we work with friends and allies, it is important to remember this crisis began with Hezbollah's unprovoked terrorist attacks against Israel," he said in a speech at the Miami port, with the Coast Guard cutter Valiant in the background. "Israel is exercising its right to defend itself. And we mourn the loss of innocent life, both in Lebanon and in Israel."
He also linked the current crisis to the U.S. battle with al-Qaeda. "For decades, the status quo in the Middle East permitted tyranny and terror to thrive," he said. "And as we saw on September the 11th, the status quo in the Middle East led to death and destruction in the United States, and it had to change. So America is opposing the forces of terror and promoting the cause of democracy across the broader Middle East."
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.