Secretary Rice Faces Her Biggest Test Yet
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JERUSALEM — Before Secretary of State Rice touched down in Washington on Monday after winning a conditional Israeli pledge to halt air raids on Lebanon for two days, the Israeli bombing had resumed.
Israel fired on a vehicle suspected of carrying a senior member of Hezbollah, the Islamic political group and militia. A Lebanese army officer was killed instead, and several soldiers were wounded, highlighting the difficulty of Ms. Rice’s pursuit of a truce and a political settlement between Israel and Hezbollah.
The task may be the toughest for Ms. Rice since she became the secretary of state. For a year and a half, she has enjoyed some diplomatic successes, won praise even from critics of President Bush, and is the most popular member of the administration with the American public.None of her earlier missions has been as prominent or risky as Lebanon, and a failure could impair her standing at home and abroad.
A former Middle East peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Aaron David Miller, said, “She’s never faced a crisis quite like this since 9/11 and Iraq, and this is something new, it seems to me, for the administration.”
Now, Ms. Rice — who is usually spared the sharp criticism leveled at Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney, or Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, especially for their handling of the Iraq war — has found herself on the receiving end of barbs.
A specialist on Syria, which occupied Lebanon until last year, and a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis, said Ms. Rice is undermining her own efforts to help the Lebanese build a democracy.
“Rice’s policy, which she executed so well, had been to build up the Lebanese government as an ally of the United States,” Mr. Landis said. “Instead, she abandoned this strategy by throwing in her chips with Israel and abandoning the Lebanese government she had been nurturing.”
The Czech daily Pravo said that in Beirut, Ms. Rice “is clearly no longer seen as a trustworthy mediator, and in Tel Aviv, she was reduced to pleading with Israel to start restraining itself a bit.” An Associated Press photo that ran in newspapers Monday shows an unidentified Arab woman holding a sign that reads: “Condy UR bombs?!! Nice gifts to our children.”
Israel struck an apartment building in Qana, Lebanon, killing as many as 62 people, mostly children, on July 30.
Before the conflict, Ms. Rice was enjoying wide popularity. A June 9 Harris Interactive Poll, taken a month before the hostilities in Lebanon and northern Israel erupted, found Ms. Rice had the highest performance ratings of administration officials measured in the poll, with 52% holding a positive view of her performance compared with 33% for Mr. Bush.
In the midst of the war, Ms. Rice has been mocked for what some describe as a naïve reading of events, including her July 21 assessment that the current violence represents “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
Asked how she dealt with the criticism, Ms. Rice told reporters aboard her plane back to Washington that she had not had time to read newspaper columns, and she added, “I am very focused on what we have to get done.”
That work will take her to the U.N. Security Council this week in an effort to hash out the terms of a cease-fire and a political framework that could end the fighting. The conflict has raged since the July 12 cross-border seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah.
A French draft resolution calls for an immediate cease-fire. Ms. Rice has resisted such a halt to Israel’s military operations until a political framework can be put in place that would disarm Hezbollah and bar the group from retaining control of southern Lebanon.
Before leaving Jerusalem on Monday, Ms. Rice predicted a cease-fire and political settlement between Israel and Hezbollah could be reached this week because she was taking home “an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement.”
Analysts such as Mr. Miller said that is optimistic and that she would have to return to the region and shuttle between Israel and Lebanon to work out details of any deal.
If she does not return for talks, “how is she going to fix this?” Mr. Miller asked.
Prime Minister Olmert underscored the difficulties when, in a speech to the nation late Monday, he said, “There is no cease-fire, and there won’t be any cease-fire in the coming days.”
Israel will stop the war when the rocket threat is removed and when its “soldiers return home in peace, and you are able to live in safety and security,” Mr. Olmert said in an address to mayors of northern Israeli towns.
Hezbollah has been linked to scores of attacks on Israelis and Americans in its 24 years of existence, including rocket strikes on Israeli towns, the 1983 bombing that killed 241 American soldiers in Beirut, and the 1994 attack that killed 95 at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
American officials with Ms. Rice gave no indication when she might return to the region. It is not clear when she might be welcome in Lebanon. Prime Minister Siniora of Lebanon said he did not want to talk until a truce was in place. He made the remarks after the attack in Qana.
Ms. Rice received the news as she sat in a meeting with Defense Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem, and the incident forced her to cancel a trip to Lebanon. Did the Qana attack “make the situation more difficult?” Ms. Rice asked rhetorically on the plane ride home. “Of course.”
Late on July 30, Ms. Rice’s spokesman, Adam Ereli, gathered reporters to announce the results of Ms. Rice’s mediation effort: a conditional 48-hour suspension of Israeli air attacks.
It was less than Ms. Rice had hoped to achieve on this trip — and, as it turned out, it did not last long.
“Until we can really address the issues here that are underlying this conflict, until we put in place a number of pillars to a real stability rather than a false stability, you’re going to have surges of violence of this kind,” she said.