Bush Stands With Israel as Rice Makes Plans for Mideast Mission


July 20 (Bloomberg) -- President George W. Bush is standing firm in his backing of Israel's military assault against Islamic radicals in Lebanon and Gaza in the face of rising calls for a cease-fire and a halt to bombing targets in civilian areas.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making plans for a diplomatic shuttle to the region as early as this weekend, a State Department official said. As the conflict enters its ninth day, at least 300 Lebanese and 29 Israelis have been killed.

Critics such as French President Jacques Chirac call Israel's response "disproportionate'' and are urging Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government to stop bombing Lebanese bridges, power stations and airports. The U.S. says Israel is exercising its legitimate right of self-defense in a conflict triggered by Hezbollah and Hamas kidnappings of Israeli soldiers.

"The Israelis are doing what they think is necessary to protect their borders,'' White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said yesterday.

Rice, who was scheduled to depart on a week-long trip to Asia this Sunday, is planning to visit the Middle East as early as Saturday. That will require rescheduling or canceling some of her Asian stops, State Department officials involved in her trip preparation said.

A Mideast shuttle would take Rice to Israel and possibly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- though not to Syria, which the U.S. blames for sponsoring the cross-border Hezbollah raid that sparked the current crisis.

Annan, U.S. at Odds
Rice plans to have dinner tonight with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose call for an immediate cease- fire puts him at odds with U.S. officials who want Israel to have enough time to knock out Hezbollah as an effective fighting force.

Some Mideast experts cautioned that time may not be on the side of the Americans or the Israelis. "There's a recognition that the longer the campaign goes on, that the anger towards Hezbollah for inviting war with Israel will shift to a frustration with Israel,'' said David Schenker, a specialist in Lebanese politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research group.

As the death toll spirals and TV screens fill with images of devastated civilian areas, both countries "recognize that there are diminishing returns,'' Schenker said. "The Israelis and the Americans realize that there's a point at which diplomacy will do a better job.''

Time Frame
Diplomacy's role in finding and dislodging a huge cache of concealed Hezbollah missiles remains largely untested. Israeli Major General Udi Adam, head of the northern military command, said on the Israel Defense Forces Web site that Hezbollah had between 13,000 and 15,000 rockets supplied by Iran. Destroying this arsenal will "take time,'' he said.

Similarly, Israeli Air Force officials have suggested that "weeks'' of additional bombing may be needed to knock out Hezbollah bases and mobile launchers.

Yesterday, Israeli ground troops entered southern Lebanon after seven days of aerial assaults against Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Islamic group that abducted two soldiers July 12. Hezbollah has launched more than 600 missiles toward Israel's towns and cities, the army said, while Israeli bombings have reached as far north as Tripoli and left about 1,000 Lebanese injured.

Broad Assault
Israel's assault on Lebanon is the broadest since 1982. Planes bombed about 50 locations in the Bekaa Valley and in southern Lebanon two days ago, including roads and bridges used for traffic to Syria, Lebanon's state-run news service said. The Lebanese government estimated that the cost of damage from Israel's air and artillery attacks is $4 billion and climbing.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on the international community to broker a halt in the fighting in order to allow humanitarian aid. "The country is being torn apart. Is the value of humans in Lebanon less than in other countries?'' Siniora said in a speech yesterday in Beirut. "I call upon you to act for an immediate cease-fire and to provide assistance to Lebanon.''

Bush's estrangement from allies over Lebanon comes as the administration has been trying to modify its foreign policy to cooperate more with other nations. It may also complicate U.S. efforts to hold together a fragile UN Security Council consensus to impose economic sanctions on Iran over Tehran's nuclear program.

Hands-Off Approach
At the UN yesterday, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton rebuffed the idea of an immediate halt in hostilities, saying that it would be "simplistic'' to think a cease-fire would ease the threat from Hezbollah. Lebanon's envoy to the UN, Nouhad Mahmoud, accused the U.S. of "stalling'' to give the Israeli offensive more time.

France's ambassador to the UN, Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, questioned the U.S.'s hands-off approach, telling reporters that he doubted it was possible for the Lebanese military to disarm Hezbollah and saying a "sustainable cease-fire is needed.'' Several U.S. allies, France among them, back a cease-fire, followed by an international peacekeeping force that could create a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon.

"No international force can prevent the existing situation in which the entire area adjacent to Israeli-Lebanese border, on the Lebanese side, is lined with large explosives and unmarked mines,'' Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres told European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, according to a statement released by Solana's office.

Regroup and Rearm
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack yesterday told reporters that while "everybody wants to see a cease- fire,'' the administration doesn't want a cease-fire "where Hezbollah is allowed to regroup, rearm, strengthen, only to pose an even greater threat to the stability of the region.''

Hezbollah bears the responsibility for the deaths of more than 180 civilians and injury of more than 1,000 others in Lebanon by Israeli warplanes and artillery, McCormack said. "Hezbollah and their backers have dragged this region and innocent people into the current situation,'' he said.

As many as 1,000 U.S. citizens left Beirut yesterday aboard the Orient Queen, a cruise ship chartered by the U.S. to take evacuees to Cyprus. An additional 136 were taken out by a Norwegian ferry. Americans leaving Lebanon won't have to reimburse the U.S. government for their travel costs, the State Department said yesterday, reversing a policy that would have billed evacuees for travel costs.

The UN has stationed peacekeeping forces in a southern strip of Lebanon since 1978 and now has about 1,990 troops in the country.