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President Bush, Secretary Rice Outline Plans for Cease-fire

July 31, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: In a day replete with graphic images of violence and awkward images of interrupted diplomacy, we take a look at the U.S. role in the Middle East crisis.

Secretary of State Rice’s first foray into the uncertainties of Middle East shuttle diplomacy came to an awkward end in Jerusalem Sunday, for even as she was posing for the cameras with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she knew nothing of Israeli air strikes that had killed as many as 60 Lebanese civilians in Qana eight hours earlier.

As the 19-day conflict has escalated, U.S. policymakers have balanced their stated goal, a long-term solution, against growing hostility in the Arab world. Once Rice learned of the Qana attack, and as pictures of dead children reached the airwaves, she offered this public statement.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: I am deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life in a bombing in Lebanon this morning. The people of Lebanon have the deepest sympathies of President Bush, the people of the United States, and my own heartfelt condolences. Our prayers go out to all the victims and their families.

We want a cease-fire as soon as possible. I would have wanted to have a cease-fire yesterday, if possible, but the parties have to agree to a cease-fire, and there have to be certain conditions in place.

GWEN IFILL: But her peace plan, which would have been cemented with a visit to Beirut, was derailed, after Lebanese President Fouad Siniora suggested she was no longer welcome.

FOUAD SINIORA, Prime Minister of Lebanon: The persistence of Israel in its heinous crimes against our civilians will not break the will of the Lebanese people. There is no place on this sad morning for any discussion other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, as well as the international investigation into the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now.

GWEN IFILL: Rice remained optimistic enough today to tell reporters that a plan to stop the fighting is still on track.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: As I head back to Washington, I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week.

GWEN IFILL: But Prime Minister Olmert said later there will be no overall cease-fire. “We are determined to succeed in this struggle,” he said. “We will not give up on our goal to live a life free of terror.”

Israel did agree to pause air strikes for 48 hours and to help Lebanese civilians make safe passage out of southern Lebanon. That pause, however, turned out to be selective, and the ground war continues.

The U.S. has turned its attention to the United Nations, where Rice said they will craft a long-term peace plan and create an international peacekeeping force. President Bush spoke today in Miami.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: For decades, the status quo in the Middle East permitted tyranny and terror to thrive. And as we saw on September the 11th, the status quo in the Middle East led to death and destruction in the United States, and it had to change.

So America is opposing the forces of terror and promoting the cause of democracy across the broader Middle East. This task is long. It is difficult work, but it is necessary work.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Rice is scheduled to meet with the president at the White House when she returns to Washington tonight.

Damaging Qana and diplomacy

Aaron Miller
Former State Department Official
The longer this confrontation goes on, the greater the possibility of the loss of life on both sides and the greater the prospects of actions being taken by either side that will make a solution more difficult.

GWEN IFILL: So what effect has the attack at Qana had on U.S. efforts to resolve this conflict? We get two views. Aaron Miller is a former senior State Department official on Arab-Israeli issues. He's now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

And Michael Rubin covered Middle East issues as a staff assistant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2004. He's now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Aaron Miller, did the events in Qana this weekend change the diplomatic equation?

AARON MILLER, Former State Department Official: No. It reflected a certain reality. That the longer this confrontation goes on, the greater the possibility of the loss of life on both sides and the greater the prospects of actions being taken by either side that will make a solution more difficult.

Ten years ago, you had Qana number one. Then in April of '96, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was shuttling between Israel and Syria to effect a set of understandings which the United States ultimately brokered, which ended a similar Israeli-Lebanese crisis.

Then, the first Qana, an errant Israeli artillery shell that killed a 100 people, had an electrifying impact, but the situation has fundamentally changed and these crises are quite different.

GWEN IFILL: Not an electrifying impact or is this some sort of turning point in this diplomatic standoff, Michael Rubin?

MICHAEL RUBIN, American Enterprise Institute: It will be damaging. Timing is everything in diplomacy. And while both sides are saying that they want a cease-fire, so much depends on what that cease-fire is.

We heard Prime Minister Siniora say that he wanted an immediate, unconditional cease-fire. If the pressure builds so much that that becomes the outcome, it would be tremendously adverse for both Israel's interests and also ours, because it would really signal an empowerment of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has gained tremendous prestige because they've been the first Arab army, if you will, to be able to hit Haifa since 1948, which is a tremendous coup in propaganda.

GWEN IFILL: I used the word earlier, Aaron Miller, "awkward" to describe Secretary Rice's meetings in Jerusalem just as Qana was happening. What is the prospect of a cease-fire if she says we can have one this week and, immediately after she leaves town, Prime Minister Olmert says, no, not until we get our soldiers back?

AARON MILLER: Look, we have to recognize a couple things. Number one, this is a substantially different crisis and the Israelis are under substantially different threat. And the consequence of Iranian rocket supplies to Hezbollah, Hezbollah now has the capacity to shell and literally shut down life in northern Israel.

Israel is now two countries. It's the country north of Haifa and the country south. And no society can live that way.

At the same time, the Israelis have to understand that, if there is no military solution to this conflict at an acceptable price, they're also going to have to allow diplomacy to take hold.

The secretary of state's job, it seems to me, back in Washington is not only to get a mandate from the president, but to work out a package sanctioned by the Security Council that she can return to the region and shuttle to sell, shuttle between Israel on one hand and Lebanon on the other. It's a risky but necessary move.

Otherwise, this twilight zone where we are betwixt and between no conventional military operation that will end at the Hezbollahi threat and no political solution will continue to damage both Israeli interests and American interests.

Timing and players

Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
A lot of people are playing by proxy. The act of fighting is between Israel, Hezbollah and Lebanon, but you also have Syria and Iran in the background.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Rubin, before Secretary Rice went to the region, there was a lot of agitation about how long it took, according to some people, for her to go. Seeing as how she came back essentially empty-handed, was she right to wait? Should she have waited longer? Is there a package that can conceivably be put together, as Aaron Miller suggests, that she can bring back on another visit?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Eventually there will be, but timing again means everything. In the past, some of our secretaries of states have gone to the region too much and it's eroded their effectiveness. There's a fine balance between when you insert yourself and when you don't.

The other issue here is that all the parties need to be ready for peace. There's this myth that the United States holds, wields so much influence in the region. That's often over-exaggerated. The other regional players, not only Hezbollah, Lebanon and Israel, but also Iran and Syria...

GWEN IFILL: Who are the other players who are actually playing right now?

MICHAEL RUBIN: A lot of people are playing by proxy. The act of fighting is between Israel, Hezbollah and Lebanon, but you also have Syria and Iran in the background. And for every day that there is a delay and for every incident like Qana, the propaganda artists in countries like Syria and in Iran can claim victory. And if they can force a much more immediate cease-fire, returning to the status quo, that's a victory for Hezbollah.

GWEN IFILL: Before Secretary Rice went to the region, she described this as perhaps presaging the birth pangs of a new Middle East. Was that a wise statement to make, Aaron Miller?

AARON MILLER: This is a very smart secretary of state that has the full trust and confidence of the president of the United States, probably the closest relationship of any secretary since Secretary Baker's relationship with the first President Bush.

A new Middle East has been used before. It's been used far too casually. You may end up with a new Middle East, but it's likely to be nastier and messier than the one we have right now. And that is one reason why it's critical that the United States be perceived and seen as an agent of positive change, to take this crisis and to convert it, if in fact this is possible, into an opportunity.

Because right now I'm afraid -- and it's not a question of being critical to the Israelis. We have a special relationship with the state of Israel. We're close allies. But right now, we are perceived to be holding Israel's coat while Israel destroys, even with the best of motives in an effort to root out the Hezbollahi, Lebanese infrastructure and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons.

So there is a certain amount of separation between our policy and Israeli's, and the only way it's going to be closed is through a diplomatic initiative which the secretary, I believe, needs to, when the package is complete, undertake.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that, that it looks like the United States has been holding Israel's coat?

MICHAEL RUBIN: That's the perception in the street. And this is...

GWEN IFILL: Is it true?

MICHAEL RUBIN: No, it's not true. However, the U.S. is much closer to Israel than to many of the Arab countries. Now, there is a lot of talk in the region that we have to be an honest broker. People make this argument when they feel that we're being biased to one side or the other.

But if the United States is constantly just putting itself in the middle of two different parties and trying to draw a line straight down the middle, what that does is only encourage the opposing parties to stake out more extreme positions. In this case, we think Israel is right.

Finding a winner in the conflict

Aaron Miller
Former State Department Official
This is the Middle East, where things that seem to be aren't really what they appear to be. And that's why the Hezbollahi right now, if in fact a cease-fire were to be negotiated, would come out a winner.

GWEN IFILL: You saw Fouad Siniora in Lebanon basically dis-invite the secretary of state. Was that something he had to do? Has he now been put in the position where he cannot cooperate in the kind of package-building you all are describing?

MICHAEL RUBIN: For today, yes, because of the proximity to the Qana incident. But with time, there will be more opportunity. Remember, Fouad Siniora has a little bit of a rivalry going with the president, President Lahoud, who's much more in the Syrian camp, and he has to protect his domestic rear, his domestic politics, and so the domestic politics of every country are going to play into this.

AARON MILLER: I don't want to put too much faith and stock, even though I spent 25 years valuing the principle of negotiations, because we can't understatement exactly the challenge and hurdles that lie ahead, not only in creating a mandate for an international stabilization force, not only in trying to work out or the Lebanese government working out a relationship with an organization, Hezbollah, that is backed by Iran and continues, it seems to me, to want to assert its primacy in Lebanese politics.

We run the risk, I'm afraid, of a very messy ending to this crisis, but it can have an ending. And in the end, we've got to make sure that the perfect doesn't become the enemy of the good.

And that is the challenge, it seems to me, for the secretary of state this week, as she tries to assemble this package, and within coming days, as hopefully she returns to the region to try to negotiate an end to this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, the first step she said she's going to take is to go to the United Nations. The United States has a rocky relationship with the United Nations and had a rocky relationship with the Arab nations who could actually speak to Hezbollah. So what is it that she can and needs to accomplish at the U.N.?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Well, the U.N. has already accomplished a lot in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

GWEN IFILL: Which wasn't enforced.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Which wasn't enforced. And this is the problem with both U.N. diplomacy and United States diplomacy, that we have attention-deficit disorder. We tend to like to kick the can down the road. She's got to make it clear that...

GWEN IFILL: And for people who don't remember what 1559 is, it's to disarm...

MICHAEL RUBIN: It talks about the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MICHAEL RUBIN: What she's got to do is make sure that any agreement is based on Resolution 1559, because, if it's not, it's going to send the signal that, through violence, U.N. Security Council resolutions can be erased.

GWEN IFILL: But if 1559 wasn't enforced last time, why would anybody put their eggs in that basket again?

AARON MILLER: It's a very good question. And the one issue, the one element of 1559 that's going to be the most contentious and most difficult to enforce is the disarming of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

I mean, the fact is: This is not a corporate Wall Street merger. This is the Middle East, where things that seem to be aren't really what they appear to be. And that's why the Hezbollahi right now, if in fact a cease-fire were to be negotiated, would come out a winner.

For three weeks, 20 days, they withstood the brunt of one of the most effective militaries in the world, and they will take Iranian dollars to help those displaced refugees who are fleeing from Israeli military action to rebuild and reconstruct their societies.

I'll say it again: We will see an ending to this. It will be diffused, but it's going to be messy. And unfortunately, it is not going to come out exactly where we and the Israelis want it to come out.

A map towards peace

Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
I think you need to have a commitment from the Lebanese government that they will fill the vacuum in the south and that they will be in charge of any relief operations for humanitarian aid

GWEN IFILL: Can we map out for a moment, from what we've seen, the pass towards cease-fire? We heard the United States say last week, "We need a final solution, not a temporary solution." We heard her say today, "We need an immediate cease-fire. I wish I had one yesterday." And then we heard Ehud Olmert said, "Well, maybe 10 to 14 days, and certainly not before Hezbollah is disarmed in the south."

What do you think has to happen, will happen?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I think you need to have a commitment from the Lebanese government that they will fill the vacuum in the south and that they will be in charge of any relief operations for humanitarian aid, and only then will Israel agree to have a cease-fire, because if it's a cease-fire that leaves Hezbollah on its borders then Aaron is exactly right.

GWEN IFILL: Is the Lebanese government strong enough to do that?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Was the Lebanese government strong enough to evict the Syrian military and end occupation? No, but if the international community stands behind the Lebanese government, the Lebanese government can accomplish a lot.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think to that?

AARON MILLER: It's going to take a long time to get an international stabilization force approved with a mandate with rules of engagement.

I see this, frankly, as entering two phases. The first is going to be agreement between the government of Lebanon and the government of Israel, the two contending parties, with the government of Lebanon representing, I suspect, the interests of Hezbollah, a set of understandings for a cooling-off period and an agreement on the key elements of a buffer zone, a stabilization force, a prisoner swap.

That cooling-off period, don't call it a cease-fire, but both sides in this crisis are going to have to stand down and we, the United States, are going to have to be extremely firm with both in getting them to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Miller, Michael Rubin, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Thank you.

AARON MILLER: Thank you.