How Rice’s Mission Became the Victim of an Israeli Attack

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NASSER NASSER / AP

Red Cross paramedics carry the body of a Lebanese man recovered from the rubble of a demolished building that was struck by Israeli war plane missiles at the village of Qana near the southern Lebanon city of Tyre, Sunday, July 30, 2006

Her shuttle diplomacy dramatically upended, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was somber as she addressed the press at 11:35 a.m. Sunday in Jerusalem. “I am deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life in the bombing in Lebanon this morning,” she said of the Israeli military’s pre-dawn attack on a Lebanese village that killed more than 60 people, including a large number of children.

Her press conference had been hastily arranged. The plan had been for Rice to leave for Beirut in an hour to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to discuss steps toward a ceasefire. Now, that trip would be cancelled. She had talked to Siniora, whom she described as “depressed” and “emotional” over what happened in the village of Qana.  Rice said, “I called him and told him that I was not coming today because I felt very strongly that my work toard a ceasefire is really here, today.” Siniora, however, had made it clear in a televised address that her trip would have been pointless. He declared he would not engage in any more negotiations until a ceasefire was in place.

Several things Rice and her associates said were evidence of growing frustration with Israel. She said she had urged the Israelis to exercise restraint in their attacks on Lebanon. Though she did make reference to Hizballah rockets hitting northern Israel, she did not repeat her usual line that the Israelis have the right to defend themselves. When asked where she would go or what she would do next to work for the ceasefire, she repeated again and again that she was staying in Jerusalem: “My work today is here.”

Still, Rice defended the Bush administration’s refusal to join other world leders in demanding that Israel agree to an immediate ceasefire. She pointed out that Sunday’s bombing was at the same village where  Israel hit a U.N. outpost in 1996, killing 106 people who had taken refuge there. (A U.N. investigation of that incident concluded that it was “unlikely” that the shelling was a mistake — a judgment Israel has never accepted.) This tragedy, she said, underscored the need for a “sustainable” ceasefire.

After Rice appeared before the cameras, a U.S. official involved in her diplomacy cast the U.S. view in stronger terms. “We don’t want to accept any pretext for delaying the ceasefire,” he said. Asked what “pretext” meant, he said, “I’ve said enough.” But he also noted, “We’re making very clear to Israelis our distress at this incident. We’re looking to wrap things up and then move the action to New York.”

Indeed, Rice and her team had already been working with the knowledge that Israel was not going to cease its attacks soon. The night before, she had had dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who told her that Israel needed 10 days to two weeks to complete its military operations. The attack on Qana — apparently the site of rocket launches against Israel — occured shortly after midnight.

On Sunday, a few hours after Rice’s press conference, more bad news arrived when U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced that the Israeli Defense Ministry had asked U.N. peacekeeping forces in Lebanon to evacuate two more villages before sunset, suggesting they would meet Qana’s fate.  By Sunday evening, Rice had apparently decided that she had done all she could do in Jerusalem and made it known she was heading back to Washington Monday morning. 

The depth of Rice’s quandary had already been coming through in subtle ways. At times, she seemed to cling to dry diplomatic jargon. “We’re making real progress on a political framework,” she said at one point.  At another, she said, “We also have to realize that we cannot have a  circumstance in which there is a return to the status quo ante.” “Now, I think the Security Council will take this up,” Rice said, apparently attempting to look forward to the infamously dilatory world of U.N. diplomacy in positive terms. “We want the Security Council to take it up soon, and we want the Security Council to take it up with as much concrete progress toward a real ceasefire, as is humanly possible by the time that that meeting takes place.”

The reality for Rice, however, is the long hours she’s keeping in an infinity loop of meetings, and the little she has to show for them. At one point in the Sunday press conference, she admitted that, “ If there is any way humanly, to accelerate our efforts, I  would do it. But we are already doing really what is of the human limitation to try to get to an end of this conflict.”

It is hard to see how Rice can make any more progress here toward her goal of a compreshensive agreement between the Israeli and Lebanese governments, which include cessation of hostilities, the deployment of the Lebanese Army backed by a “robust” international force to secure the border with israel and push Hizballah back so that its short range rockets cannot strike Israel.

On the Lebanese side, the various factions, including Hizballah, had made a breakthrough of sorts last week by agreeing to back the Siniora government as its single representative in any negotiations. Indeed, even after Sunday’s incident at Qana, Dr. Mohammad Chatah, senior advisor to the Prime Minister told Time that “nothing has changed as far as the position of the government on the underlying issues.” However, the Qana incident was a “war crime.” Said Chatah, “You cannot fight a war by killing civilians. We want this to end. And it can end. Our plan is still the way to end it.” As for Rice’s work, he says, “She is speaking of a ceasefire as an urgent goal but we are saying it should be an immediate goal.” In Lebanon, the Health Ministry estimated the toll for 19 days of war at 750 dead and 2,000 wounded. 

— With reporting by Andrew Lee Butters/Beirut