- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

Israeli leaders yesterday said for the first time that they would consider the deployment of a NATO-led multinational force in Lebanon to monitor a cease-fire with Hezbollah, as diplomats increased their efforts to halt the escalating crisis in the Middle East.

In Washington yesterday, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with top Saudi Arabian officials before Miss Rice’s trip to try to seek an end to the conflict that began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

“We are requesting a cease-fire to allow for a cessation of hostilities,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said after the Oval Office meeting in advance of Miss Rice’s two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories beginning today.

Diplomats from France, Germany and Britain yesterday held separate talks with Israeli officials who, after almost two weeks of strikes on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, showed increased openness to proposals for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

Israeli press reported that both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz said they would agree to a multinational force led by North Atlantic Treaty Organization members on the condition that NATO had a robust enough mandate to stop rocket fire and weapons transfers.

“Because of the weakness of the Lebanese army, we will support a multinational force with enforcement responsibilities, which can deploy in the south and carry out its mandate,” said Mr. Peretz, the daily newspaper Ha’aretz reported on its Web site.

A force of about 2,000 U.N. soldiers, stationed for 26 years along the Israel-Lebanon border, has not prevented the frequent border hostilities, and the U.N. mission is now viewed as a failure by Israeli leaders.

Israeli and U.S. officials are seeking the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for disarming Hezbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese army in the hope that an international force would fill the security vacuum left by Hezbollah and help the Lebanese government gradually assert itself.

In Washington yesterday, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said U.S. troops are unlikely to be deployed as part of an international force in the region.

“We haven’t discussed the possibility of U.S. boots on the ground in Lebanon. We want to be open-minded on what’s doable here,” Mr. Bolton said. “The main point being to see that Hezbollah does not return to its armed, militant capacity threatening Israel and that the institutions of Lebanon cover the whole country.”

Prince Saud met with Mr. Bush and Miss Rice for more than an hour in the Oval Office yesterday, along with Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of the Saudi National Security Council. The officials delivered a letter from Saudi King Abdullah asking that the president help seek an immediate cease-fire.

Mr. Bush has said that Israel has a right to defend itself and that a cease-fire makes no sense if the terrorist threat from Hezbollah is left unaddressed. Mr. Bush and Miss Rice have demanded that Hezbollah, financed by Iran and Syria, return the two captured Israeli soldiers and stop firing missiles into Israel if it wants fighting to cease.

Although Prince Saud said Mr. Bush told him he wants the violence in the Middle East to stop, the Saudi did not say how the president responded to the request for an immediate cease-fire.

“I found the president very conscious of the destruction and the bloodshed that the Lebanese are suffering,” Prince Saud said. “His anxiety [is] to see the cessation of hostilities. I have heard that from him personally, and that is why he is sending Miss Rice to work out the details.”

• Mr. Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv; Mr. Curl reported from Washington.

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