Rice Says Israel May Need to Prolong Offensive

By BRIAN KNOWLTON, International Herald Tribune
Published: July 16, 2006

WASHINGTON, July 16 — Israel may need to prolong its offensive in Lebanon to further reduce the threat from Hezbollah, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today, as some Democrats called on her to travel to the region immediately to help defuse the crisis.

Ms. Rice appeared to support a longer-term Israeli effort to inflict decisive damage to Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon. She also said she was considering a trip to the region.

“A cessation of violence is crucial, but if that cessation of violence is hostage to Hezbollah’s next decision to launch missiles into Israel or Hamas’s next decision to abduct an Israeli citizen, then we will have gotten nowhere,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Ms. Rice’s remarks appeared to put the United States at odds with most of its allies, which have urged an immediate halt to the far-flung Israeli strikes in Lebanon that followed attacks by Hezbollah militants in northern Israel.

But in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Group of 8 leading industrialized countries issued a statement that sought to bridge the differences. “These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos,” it said, an apparent allusion to Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian supporters.

It then added, “We call upon Israel to exercise utmost restraint.”

The White House counselor, Dan Bartlett, in St. Petersburg with President Bush, was asked by CNN what sort of restraint the United States expected.

“We’re not going to get into specific tactical decision-making,” he said, “but what we’re saying is, let’s not lose sight of the broader context.”

Mr. Bartlett said the survival of Lebanon’s young democratic government was crucial, as was Israel’s right to self-defense. But he said Israel needed to concentrate carefully on targets clearly linked to Hezbollah.

But by joining its voice to the Group of 8 statement, the United States carefully avoided tying its own hands. At a news conference a few hours earlier, President Bush sidestepped repeatedly when asked whether he supported Lebanon’s call for an immediate cease-fire.

A day earlier, after he met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Bush bluntly blamed Hezbollah for provoking the crisis, while Mr. Putin said that “the use of force should be balanced,” a comment taken as critical of Israel.

The crisis has revived domestic criticism that the Bush administration, burdened and distracted by the war in Iraq, has dangerously ignored broader regional tensions.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright — speaking with unusual candor considering the traditional injunction in American politics against speaking ill of United States foreign policy while the president is abroad — said of the Bush administration, “I’m stunned, I’m frankly stunned that they have not been involved” more in the region.

“I wish that the secretary had announce that she was leaving St. Petersburg and going with other foreign ministers to the region to begin shuttle diplomacy,” she said on the ABC News program “This Week,” referring to Ms. Rice. “We can’t wait for the violence to stop.”

Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, agreed that Ms. Rice should head to the region immediately. “We’re late into this game,” he told Fox News. “This could spin out of control to such a degree that we could have a major, major war in the Middle East.”

When Ms. Rice was asked later whether she might engage in the sort of shuttle diplomacy made famous by her predecessor Henry Kissinger, she replied, “I’m thinking about it.”

“I certainly stand ready to do so when I believe that I can make a difference.”

But, she added: “We first need a way ahead. Let’s recognize that simply going in and shuttling back and forth, if you don’t know where you’re trying to go, is not going to help.” It was vital, Ms. Rice said, to work with the United Nations and other parties “to lay a foundation so that we don’t have continual further crises.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has urged Mr. Bush to send Ms. Rice to the region, Time magazine has reported, citing an unidentified British official.

American lawmakers have mostly defended Israel’s response to the Hezbollah attacks.

“We need to stand firm with our friends the Israelis,” Senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia, said on Fox News. “They are protecting themselves.”

A Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, supported the Bush administration’s response but suggested an additional line of action: for Mr. Bush to send two former presidents, his father and Bill Clinton, to the region. “I think it would be a masterful diplomatic stroke,” Ms. Feinstein told CNN.

Both Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush pointed fingers at Syria and Iran for supporting and perhaps guiding Hezbollah, as well as militants of Hamas, who now controls the Palestinian government.

“They’re all — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas — trying to destabilize democratic and moderate forces, trying to throw the region into chaos,” Ms. Rice said. “They can’t be allowed to do that.”

Mr. Bartlett said Group of 8 countries increasingly agreed that Hezbollah was to blame for the Lebanon crisis, adding, “What you’re going to see is a further isolation of the governments of Syria and Iran, and more people joining the moderate forces” in the region.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said he considered the Syrian-Iranian link to Hezbollah’s attacks speculative. “We take this very seriously, but we want to see facts,” he said on CNN. “Whenever we ask for facts, there are not too many, if any.”

But a senior Republican senator, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said on CNN that he hoped Syria and Iran would understand “that using their surrogate Hezbollah will not succeed, and in the end it may backfire.”