UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. announced Wednesday that it would again postpone a meeting of nations that could contribute troops to help stabilize south Lebanon, saying it was premature to talk about deploying peacekeepers to the region before imposing a plan for peace between Israel and Hezbollah.
The announcement came as diplomats claimed substantial progress toward an agreement on just such a plan, saying there was general agreement on the elements required for a lasting solution. That includes halting the fighting; disarming Hezbollah; creating a buffer zone in south Lebanon free of either Hezbollah militants or Israeli troops; and deploying peacekeepers.
The diplomats are debating a French-proposed draft resolution that would impose that framework for peace and lay the conditions for a peacekeeping force.
But France, considered a possible leader of a peacekeeping force, has refused to take part in a meeting of nations willing to contribute troops. That refusal has now led the U.N. to postpone the meeting twice.
"It's clear that it remains premature for such a meeting to be held because of the absence of an agreed political framework for ending the conflict," U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said. "If you don't have a mandate, how can you decide what kind of force you need?"
France wants fighting to stop immediately, to create the political framework, and then to send the troops. Israel, with U.S. backing, has vowed to push ahead with its campaign until the peacekeepers are deployed.
The U.N. backs France's view. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned that without a halt, fighting could only spread and tensions could worsen in the region.
"He continues to press for a cessation of hostilities," Fawzi said. "As he said time and time again in this conflict, it is civilians who are paying the price."
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton raised the possibility of two different types of international force.
One idea is that the first could help disarm Hezbollah, and its mandate and composition would change to a standard peacekeeping mission after Hezbollah is out of south Lebanon. Another idea would involve strengthening the current U.N. force in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.
"The situation at the outset when a force might go in could well be substantially different than a period say six months later and over the longer term," Bolton said. "I think that's just a statement of the obvious. But there's no decision on that."
While diplomats refused to discuss many more details of their discussions, they said they were pleased with the way the talks were heading. Several said they hoped to have a deal on a text by early next week.
France, Italy, Germany, Ireland and Turkey have said they are considering joining a multinational force. Diplomats in the continent's other capitals are discussing whether to add their countries to the roster.