Is This The Right Time?

CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News. He now covers the State Department.

While almost every country the Bush administration calls an ally pressed for an immediate cease fire Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would return to the Middle East only when "the time was right" for securing a cease fire which she has variously described as "durable," "lasting," or "sustainable." Soon she leaves Malaysia to head back to the Middle East trying to get agreement from the governments of Israel and Lebanon on just the precise form a cease fire they and the rest of the international community can agree on.

To say Rice has her diplomatic work cut out for her is a huge understatement. Israel's war to root out Hezbollah from Southern Lebanon is seen by President George W. Bush and his secretary of state as part and parcel of their Global War on Terrorism and reducing or eliminating Hezbollah's power would be seen as a big victory in that war.

Hezbollah has long been on Washington's list of terrorist organizations. That's strike 1. It has close ties to Syria's government and gets arms from Damascus. Count that as strike 2.

Finally, most of Hezbollah's financial and political backing comes from Iran, seen as the world's chief sponsor of terrorism in Washington. Strike three.

Removing Hezbollah for Mr. Bush, even if it means more suffering in the short term for the people of Southern Lebanon, is a worthy objective. "They're not sympathetic people. They're violent, cold-blooded killers who are trying to stop the advance of freedom," said the President. "And this is the calling of the 21st century, it seems like to me. And now's the time to confront the problem."

One irony of trying to broker a diplomatic solution in this case is that it involves making peace between unequal partners in the international arena. How to bridge the diplomatic gap between a state, Israel, and a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, is one of Rice's biggest challenges and its made all the more difficult because Rice refuses to meet or even speak with any of Hezbollah's leaders. Washington will talk only to the Israelis and the government of Lebanon and its Prime minister, Fuad Sinoira. Someone else—presumably someone in the Lebanese government-- will have to prevail upon Hezbollah's leadership to accept a deal. The only other alternative is for another government which has ties to Damascus and Tehran make the case they should exercise their influence on Hezbollah.

Diplomats from most countries involved in the effort to broker a deal already know the basics of what will be required for a sustainable cease fire. Israeli and American officials, among others, say the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah must be released and that rocket attacks against Israel must cease. In addition, Hezbollah must be disarmed and its supply routes monitored. Everyone envisions an international security force inserted into Southern Lebanon to keep the peace and that force would also help train and guide Lebanon's weak army into asserting control over all parts of the country. Some of these objectives are no more than a true implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, passed two years ago. For its part, Israel would stop its attacks in Lebanon and would withdraw behind its own borders.

Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel says Rice can probably persuade the Israelis to accept a deal, but Hezbollah is a problem. "And I think it's very hard to see that the Hezbollah will cooperate in what would in effect be its own demise as a resistance organization," Indyk told CBS News.

So, Rice heads for Israel and Lebanon while the Security Council meets early next week in New York City to talk about which countries might contribute troops to the international security force and to pass a resolution giving that force the legal mandate it needs to operate under.

With the humanitarian stakes high, the political stakes risky and the spotlight on her, Rice's mission is her most difficult diplomatic task to date. As the Brookings Institution's Shibley Telhami told the AP, "If she does not get a cease fire she will have failed." Whether this is the right time politically or diplomatically is not important for the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians who have become refugees after being forced to flee their homes. Nor is it paramount for over a million Israelis who have had to flee their homes for the safety of bomb shelters. For too many civilians on both sides of the border the right time has passed. For the rest, it is, simply, time for a cease fire.
By Charles Wolfson