On the Plane With Condi Rice

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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walks off her plane July 29, 2006 in Tel Aviv, Israel

When Condoleezza Rice left Washington for the Middle East on July 24, she knew she was taking the biggest gamble of her public career. She had a planeful of reporters, no schedule and no winners up her sleeve. Her mission — to forge a deal that promised a lasting end of conflict between Israel and Lebanon's Shi'ite militants — was being widely dismissed as quixotic.

A week later, after a sleep-deprived slog from the Middle East to Europe to Asia and back again, she was on her way to Washington yesterday with not much to show but hope and determination to persuade the U.N. Security Council to approve a U.S.-British resolution laying out a comprehensive political and security plan between Israel and Lebanon, including Lebanon's Hizballah militants. Rice's plans to cement at least informal Israeli and Lebanese commitments to that plan had been sidetracked the day before by the global uproar over an Israeli bombardment that had gone awry, collapsing a residence in the south Lebanon town of Qana, crushing and suffocating 54 people, mostly women and children.

Whatever Rice was feeling on the flight back couldn't be seen in her face or body language. Once ensconced in her spacious cabin, she changed into a teal warmup suit and worked throughout the 14-hour trip home. She and her most trusted key advisors—Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and National Security Council democracy-agenda chief Elliott Abrams — communicated constantly with Washington, London, Paris and other key players via the Air Force plane's secure phone or by cell phone and text-messaging devices during a refueling stop in Ireland.

When she dropped by the press section to offer optimistic predictions about the upcoming Security Council actions, Rice seemed bemused that reporters asked about her mood and the slams some critics were aiming her way. "Look, I am very focused on what we have to get done," Rice said. "I know it's the right thing to do. And unless you have a [moral] compass and unless you're willing to act on principle, then you're not going to contribute ultimately to peace. And, you know, when you're Secretary of State, you only have a limited period of time in which to try and help affect what is a very complicated and difficult region. And I'm quite aware that if we don't do it in a way that is really going to contribute to real stability and peace, that we will have missed an opportunity. And I worry more about that than I do about what today's columns which I didn't read might be."

Pressed again for her reaction the roller-coaster developments of the past week, Rice said, with a hint of exasperation, "I don't know. Maybe I'm just not as self-reflective as you think I am. You know, I was thinking, all right, we go from Rome and, kind of, 'What's next?'"

Finally, she admitted almost wistfully that her thoughts had turned back to March 14 of last year, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets to protest the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and to throw off Syrian occupation.Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" had been a showcase for the Bush Administration's "democracy agenda," of which Rice was a key architect and proselytizer. If diplomacy didn't resolve the conflict with Israel and drive Hizbollah out of its safe havens, she said, "this hope that was so evident in the events of March 14th and what followed isn't ever going to be realized."

While neither Rice nor any other person in President Bushís inner circle voices any misgivings, the reality is, with escalating violence in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, which also held democratic elections over the past year, itís not just Lebanonís future but the Administration's democracy-promotion vision that seems imperiled.

Though Rice didn't say so in blunt terms, the moment when she first heard of the Qana tragedy was a low point. She had been meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz shortly after 8 a.m Sunday when assistant secretary of state David Welch, Rice's point man for Israeli-Arab problems, received an urgent e-mail from U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman in Beirut. Feltman didn't have many facts yet, he and Welch instinctively sensed the potential for derailing Rice's efforts to mediate a cross-border settlement. Welch slipped into the meeting to give Rice a heads-up. She felt "sickened" at the news, she later told an aide.

It didn't help that Peretz knew about the Qana bombing and hadn't mentioned it. As the day wore on and the dimensions of the tragedy became apparent, Rice called a grief-stricken Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, cancelled her trip to Beirut and in the late afternoon disappeared behind closed doors for an hour-and-a-half meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the second such meeting in as many days. She called President Bush three times during the day.

Meanwhile, Welch and NSC staffer Abrams were trying to salvage something positive out of the disaster. Using the Qana crisis as leverage, they exacted a commitment from Israeli officials to a U.S. proposal, which had been the table for some weeks, to suspend aerial bombing sorties over south Lebanon for 48 hours, give residents 24 hours safe passage to get out of the areas of intensive bombardment and allow humanitarian aid convoys to enter and distribute food, water and medical supplies. Israeli agreement to the limited suspension came late in the evening. Rice spokesman Adam Ereli, not the Israelis, made the announcement. Hours later, the Israeli military attacked targets in southern Lebanon. Rice said those sorties did not violate the promise because "they tell us it was close air support for forces that were being engaged (and bombing in defense of Israeli ground troops had been exempted)."

While neither Rice nor her aides criticized Israel openly, the tension was palpable. Last night, a senior State Department official was asked if he was frustrated with the Israelis. "It's easy to be frustrated in a situation like this," he said. "Frustration is not a policy...there are some things that can be done and can be done swiftly."

Even at the darkest moments, those in Rice's circle said they shared her confidence that the Security Council would go with the U.S. plan that calls for a near-simultaneous ceasefire and deployment to south Lebanon of the Lebanese Army and some leading-edge units of an international stabilization force. A third element is a political agreement aimed at cementing lasting peace: Israel would respect Lebanonís territorial integrity and Lebanon would extend central government control over all its territory and disarm local militias, including the powerful Hizbollah force that has acted as a state within a state in south Lebanon. If anything, said an American diplomat, Israel's escalation would raise more alarms among the Europeans and create more momentum for a concerted effort by the international community to intervene diplomatically to stop the violence. Rice and her aides hope to see the Security Council act this week and to have a cease fire and the international force's boots on the ground in south Lebanon no later than mid August.

"It's going to happen," the diplomat said grimly. "It's not going to be pretty, but it's going to happen."