By Colum Lynch and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 10, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 9 -- France on Wednesday introduced elements of a draft resolution urging Israel to begin withdrawing thousands of troops from southern Lebanon "at the earliest" possible date, as the United States warned that the next 24 hours are crucial because of Israel's threat to launch a ground invasion of Lebanon.
The possibility of escalating violence in the region raised the stakes in diplomatic efforts by the United States and France to bring a halt to the four-week conflict. The U.N. Security Council's five major powers -- the United States, France, Russia, China and Britain -- agreed to hold a new round of talks Thursday morning to try to narrow the differences.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and France's U.N. ambassador, Jean Marc de La Sablière, said that the two sides had made progress in talks Wednesday evening but that important differences remain. "My sense is that we're getting closer in a way to resolving some of them," Bolton said. "But I don't want to underestimate the conceptual and operational differences that we're trying to overcome."
A senior administration official warned late Wednesday that diplomacy is reaching a crunch point. "It's a real inflection point in the next 12 to 24 hours," said the senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy. "There's a real possibility that we will get a resolution that reduces to zero the large-scale violence and gets an international force into Lebanon or, if not, then you're looking at a major Israeli ground invasion," the official said.
In Paris, President Jacques Chirac suggested that France would pursue its own diplomatic initiative to end the conflict if the United States refused to budge. The move appeared calculated to increase pressure on the United States to press Israel to end its escalating military campaign and leave Lebanon.
"There seem to be American reservations about adopting this draft," Chirac said. "I don't want to think of there not being a solution, since that would mean -- which would be the most immoral of solutions -- us accepting the present situation and giving up on the immediate cease-fire.
"So I don't want to think of the Americans or anyone else doing that," he said at a news conference after talks with his prime minister and key cabinet officials on the crisis.
In televised comments, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah called on the Lebanese government and the Lebanese population to stand firm and not waver from the seven-point plan presented by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and approved July 28 by the full government, including Hezbollah ministers. That plan calls for "an immediate, unconditional and comprehensive cease-fire" and requires Israel to withdraw beyond Lebanon's U.N.-demarcated border with Israel.
Nasrallah warned that the unity of the government would be in jeopardy if the plan were altered as urged by the United States. Specifically, Nasrallah endorsed the dispatch of Lebanese army units to the border region, as proposed by Siniora over the weekend. "This is a clear decision," he said. "Everyone wants the army to deploy and sees it as a patriotic exit from the crisis. As far as we are concerned, that is a dignified exit, and the Lebanese army is composed of the sons of the people."
On Saturday, the United States and France agreed on a resolution calling for a "cessation of hostilities" between Israel and Hezbollah. But that accord unraveled after Lebanon objected to a provision that would have allowed Israeli troops to remain in southern Lebanon until a formal political settlement was reached. Instead, it proposed sending 15,000 U.N.-backed Lebanese forces to take control from the Israelis.
In a shift, France backed the Lebanese position, proposing new language that calls on Israel to begin withdrawing behind Lebanon's U.N.-demarcated border with Israel while the Lebanese army, supported by a U.N. peacekeeping mission, starts deploying in southern Lebanon.
But the United States has backed Israel's demand that it be permitted to remain in southern Lebanon until a new, larger and more muscular international force is brought in to supervise the 50-mile border and guarantee that Hezbollah can no longer attack Israeli cities. Bolton insisted that the United States is committed to ensuring an "effective security presence in the southern part of Lebanon as the Israeli forces withdraw."
"We don't want Hezbollah to re-infiltrate the southern part of Lebanon," he added.
A senior Arab delegation pressed Lebanon's case for an immediate withdrawal of troops, saying their presence threatens stability in the region. The delegation also opposed U.S. and French plans to send a multinational force to Lebanon. "There is a fear of more chaos in the region," Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa told reporters.
"We are trying to bring together the views and to bridge to gap in order for us to get the resolution adopted," Moussa said. "And we continue our work today and perhaps tomorrow."
Correspondents Edward Cody and Nora Boustany contributed to this report from Beirut. Wright reported from Washington.