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WORLD

Arabs look to U.S. for diplomatic solution

By Elise Labott
CNN

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Diplomats debate when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should visit the Mideast.

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(CNN) -- Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Middle East crisis are unlikely to prove successful until Israel feels it has crippled Hezbollah or President George W. Bush pressures Israel to halt the offensive, Arab diplomats said Monday.

One senior Arab diplomat said the answer lies in Washington: "Just like only [President] Nixon could go to China, only Bush can push Israel."

But officials such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton have said the United States does not believe the time is right for a cease-fire.

The U.S. position is that a cease-fire is a temporary halt to the hostilities, and what everyone wants is a solution that eliminates the threat posed by Hezbollah.

Privately, senior U.S. officials said they don't expect the fighting to stop until Israel has sufficiently demobilized Hezbollah.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday his country is committed to "removing Hezbollah from the area" and bringing home the two Israeli soldiers abducted last week before halting its military operations in Lebanon.

The Arab League -- plus, in separate statements, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- put the onus on Hezbollah for igniting the violence.

But now Arab diplomats are afraid this is being used as justification for the continued Israeli operations in Lebanon. The longer the operations go on, diplomats say, it will be increasingly difficult for Arab leaders to put the blame on Hezbollah, because ongoing violence will fuel anti-Israeli public opinion in their countries.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman are in Washington and plan to meet with Rice and other U.S. officials Tuesday. European and Arab countries are making a big push for deeper U.S. engagement -- specifically a tougher stand with Israel.

While they understand the United States has asked Israel to be selective in targeting infrastructure and to strive to protect civilians, Arab officials said the pictures airing on news channels indicate this is not happening, and the United States is seen as giving Israel a green light.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have said the statement on the Mideast issued by the Group of Eight economic powers at their summit in Russia on Sunday offers a "framework" for the road ahead. In its statement, the G-8 called on Israel "to exercise utmost restraint, seeking to avoid casualties among innocent civilians and damage to civilian infrastructure and to refrain from acts that would destabilize the Lebanese government." (Full story)

Several officials said Rice played a big role in drafting the statement, and many Arab diplomats -- including Lebanese -- think it was an evenhanded statement.

President Bush said Monday he plans to send his secretary of state to the Middle East.

But diplomats and even some U.S. officials are ambivalent about the usefulness of a trip by Rice.

While it would be a symbolic show of U.S. engagement in the region, they said, there are downsides. With no contact with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria -- seen as main actors in the unfolding drama -- there aren't that many parties for Rice to talk to; and if the Israeli position remains the same and the United States is reluctant to exert pressure, there isn't much to be accomplished.

In addition, Rice would be expected by leaders in the region to visit Lebanon after voicing strong support for the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. But U.S. security officials may decide a visit to Beirut would be too perilous.

Monday, in interviews on CNN, Lebanese U.N. Ambassador Nouhad Mahmoud and the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, each said the time is not right for a Rice trip to the region.

Officials said Rice will not visit the Middle East before hearing from a U.N. team in the region examining options on how to end the hostilities, including the possible deployment of a U.N. stabilization force.

The force, proposed at the G-8 summit by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, could help the weak Lebanese army deploy in areas now controlled by Hezbollah. The United States says such a force could be useful, but only once Hezbollah stops its rocket attacks into Israel and returns the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped last week.

The United States also is increasing pressure on Iran and Syria. U.S. officials say any U.N. resolution on the Middle East must call on Tehran and Damascus to stop its support for Hezbollah.

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