- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israel began an expanded ground offensive in southern Lebanon today after expressing dissatisfaction over an emerging cease-fire deal, government officials said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided to expand the offensive after meeting for four hours. Mr. Peretz instructed the military to begin the offensive, officials said.

Mr. Olmert’s spokesman, Asaf Shariv, said the expanded incursion had already begun. An emerging cease-fire deal being worked out by the U.N. Security Council fails to meet Israel’s basic requirements, such as stationing robust international combat troops in southern Lebanon once Israel withdraws, Mr. Shariv said.

“Yesterday we were very optimistic, but [the Security Council] took the wrong turn,” he said.

The government is implementing Wednesday’s Cabinet decision granting the army permission to carry out a massive ground offensive “to deal with the Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon, from which barrages of missiles continue to be launched against the Israeli civilian population,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Mr. Regev added, however, that Israel was still open to a negotiated solution as the Security Council prepared to vote on the proposed cease-fire deal.

“Our action does not exclude a diplomatic option. On the contrary, we are following developments in New York closely. But so far, diplomacy has not produced concrete results, and it is incumbent upon the government to defend its citizens,” he said.

He said he could not comment on the time frame or scale of the offensive.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Mr. Olmert to ask him if there was any room left for diplomacy to solve the Mideast crisis, according to an individual close to the government with direct knowledge of the conversation.

The telephone call came shortly after Israel announced it would carry out a massive ground offensive in southern Lebanon because of its dissatisfaction with the emerging cease-fire deal.

Mr. Olmert has indicated he would be willing to call off the offensive if Israel’s basic demands are met, said the individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the private conversation.

It was not immediately clear whether the Israeli threat was meant to pressure the council, which was close to a vote on a cease-fire resolution, or whether Israel is determined to send troops deeper into Lebanon. Israel is upset about apparent last-minute changes in the text, which would seem to weaken the mandate of a multinational force, defense officials said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke to Miss Rice and told her Israel won’t accept any cease-fire deal, Israel TV’s Channel One reported.

The Israeli Security Cabinet had approved a wider ground offensive up to Lebanon’s Litani River, about 18 miles north of the Israeli-Lebanese border. The decision had been suspended for a few days to allow for the diplomatic effort.

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