- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Bush administration’s hope for a lasting cease-fire in the Middle East this week dimmed yesterday as it scuffled with France over a U.N. Security Council resolution on the conflict and Israel expanded its offensive in Lebanon.

Washington’s disagreement with Paris’ insistence that a broad political agreement be reached between Israel and Lebanon, including Hezbollah, before an international force can be deployed prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to call on the two countries not to repeat their 2003 rift before the Iraq war.

Mr. Annan urged the five permanent Security Council members — the other three being Britain, Russia and China — during a breakfast meeting with their ambassadors to put “differences aside in order to resolve this crisis as soon as possible,” said U.N. public affairs director Ahmad Fawzi.

The United States, which has been much quieter in pursuing its objectives at the United Nations, does not want the international force to be delayed by the likely failure of the parties to reach an agreement soon.

Israel has asked the Bush administration to make certain there is no gap between the end of its military operation and the installation of the international force in southern Lebanon.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who plans to meet with her counterparts in New York, has not yet determined that the time for such a gathering has come, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The United Nations said Jean-Marie Guehenno, undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, will chair a meeting tomorrow of countries interested in contributing troops to a security force in southern Lebanon.

Miss Rice said before leaving Israel on Monday that she was “convinced” that both “an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement” could be achieved this week.

But the disagreements with France over the sequence of a cease-fire and international force deployment, as well as Israel’s decision to expand its offensive and resume full air strikes, cast doubt on the secretary’s hopes, diplomats in Washington and New York said.

The French position is significant because Paris appears likely to lead the security force. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin insisted yesterday that deploying the force and “a possible French participation in it make sense only after achievement of a political agreement explicitly supported by all the parties concerned.”

In addition, the French draft calls for an “immediate cessation of hostilities,” after which a “lasting solution” to the crisis can be found. Washington prefers that such a solution to be reached before a cease-fire.

Diplomats said Miss Rice’s task of negotiating a resolution favorable to Israel had been made more difficult by Israel’s Qana attack on Sunday that killed 56 Lebanese civilians, most of them women and children, and by its expanded offensive.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was quoted in the Ha’aretz newspaper as saying that the Qana incident turned the diplomatic tide against her country. Israel’s “scope for political maneuvering had been reduced,” she said, and the French position had become “problematic.”

Nevertheless, the European Union yesterday adopted a statement calling for an “immediate cessation of hostilities,” rather than an “immediate cease-fire,” after objections from the closest U.S. allies to the initial proposal.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said in Washington yesterday that his government is “grateful for American diplomacy” to resolve the crisis.

“Whoever is suggesting a cease-fire need not talk to Israel,” he said. “If Hezbollah stopped firing at us, there would be a cease-fire right away.”

David R. Sands contributed to this article.

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