Bombing suspension caps weekend of disappointments for Rice
JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, moving quickly after an Israeli bomb killed a number of children, won a suspension of aerial bombing from Israel that capped a weekend of diplomatic disappointments.The strike had scarred Rice’s weeklong mission to halt the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, prompting her to scrap a planned meeting with Lebanon’s prime minister and arrange to return to Washington for consultation with President Bush.But in a late night announcement, her spokesman, Adam Ereli, said Israel would pause its aerial activity over southern Lebanon – the region most pocked by the fighting – for 48 hours while it investigates how civilians were fatally targeted. He said Israel has reserved the right to attack targets if it learns that attacks are being prepared against them.He said Israel also will coordinate with the United Nations to allow a 24-hour period of safe passage for all residents of south Lebanon who want to leave the region.Rice had hoped to engage in a weekend “give-and-take” with Israeli and Lebanese officials and acknowledged such a dialogue would prove difficult even before Israel’s airstrike on Qana, Lebanon, derailed her plans. The attack early Sunday killed 56 civilians and was the deadliest in the 19 days of fighting. Most of the victims were children.In one of her strongest statements on the need to end the conflict, Rice said prior to the bombing suspension announcement that “I think it’s time to get a cease-fire” and Bush stressed the need for a “sustainable peace” in the volatile region.Bush spoke with Rice by telephone two times Sunday before the bombing suspension announcement and once afterward, his spokesman said.A State Department official traveling with Rice and speaking on condition of anonymity said the secretary had been urging steps toward a break in the violence “for some time” and that the decision to push for a bombing suspension “was made in light of steadily deteriorating condition in the area.”Rice expressed sympathy for the “terrible loss of innocent life,” but did not call for an immediate cease-fire of all hostilities. She maintained the U.S. position that Lebanon and Israel first must settle border disputes, prisoner exchanges and other tough questions.Bush, at a White House T-ball game for youngsters, said, “Today’s actions in the Middle East remind us that friends and allies must work together for a sustainable peace particularly for the sake of children.”Rice acknowledged the “pretty political and dicey circumstances” in which she found herself.”Too many innocent people – Lebanese and Israeli – have suffered,” Rice said. “Too many people have lost their lives. Too many families are homeless. And too many children have been killed, injured or are living in fear for their lives.”The attack came at an especially inopportune time for Rice. Arriving Saturday for a second visit in a week to the Middle East, she hoped to broker an agreement that could serve as a foundation for a U.N. Security Council resolution.International pressure is growing for the United States to call for a quick truce, even as Israeli officials say its military may need 10 days to 14 more days to accomplish its objectives against Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite political party with its own militia.A French-sponsored draft resolution, circulating this weekend among council members, calls for an immediate halt to fighting and seek a wide new buffer zone in south Lebanon monitored by international forces and the Lebanese army.In Beirut, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said the attack on Lebanese civilians showed that a cease-fire is the only option. “There is no place at this sad moment for any discussions other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire as well as international investigation of the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now,” he told reporters.Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who agreed to the bombing suspension, expressed “great sorrow” for the deaths, but blamed Hezbollah guerrillas for using the area to launch rockets at Israel.Fighting that began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers has left more than 750 people dead; the vast majority are Lebanese civilians.The Bush administration has stood by Israel’s efforts to go after Hezbollah. But administration officials also have tried to find ways to support the fragile Lebanese democracy, which the U.S. sees as part of its vision for “the new Middle East” of healthy, elected governments.White House spokesman Tony Snow said the Qana attack did not change U.S. policy, but will hasten efforts to end the violence in a sustainable way. “It clearly does have impact,” Snow said.”We are making real progress on the political framework and believe the parties are coming together,” Rice said on Sunday.James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan, said the attack will intensify pressure on the U.S. to join other nations in rallying behind a cease-fire.”It does underscore the degree to which the war is escalating, passions are increasing and American and Israeli isolation is deepening,” said Dobbins, who now heads military analysis for the Rand Corp., a research institution.