BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon's parliament speaker, Hezbollah's de facto negotiator, rejected proposals brought by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday, inisisting a cease-fire must preceed any talks about resolving Hezbollah's presence in the south, an official close to the speaker said.
Rice's talks with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora also appeared to have been tense. Saniora told Rice that Israel's bombardment was taking his country "backwards 50 years" and also called for a "swift cease-fire," the prime minister's office said.
An official close to parliament speaker Nabih Berri said his talks with Rice failed to "reach an agreement because Rice insisted on one full package to end the fighting."
The package included a cease-fire, simultaneous with the deployment of the Lebanese army and an international force in south Lebanon and the removal of Hezbollah weapons from a buffer zone extending 30 kilometers from the Israeli border, said the official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
Berri rejected the package, proposing instead a two-phased plan that required an immediate cease-fire, but leave until much later the question of moving the Lebanese army into the south — which is a key demand of Israel and the United States.
Under Berri's plan, first would come the cease-fire and negotiations for a prisoner swap. Then the issue of how to deal with Hezbollah's presence in the south would be determined by an intra-Lebanese dialogue.
Lebanese parties — including Hezbollah, pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian factions — held weeks of the so-called "dialogue conference" this spring, but no headway was made on what to do with the south or whether to disarm Hezbollah.
The United States has insisted that no cease-fire can take place without dealing what it calls the root cause of the violence — Hezbollah's domination of the south along the Israeli border. Israel has rejected any halt in the fighting until two soldiers captured by the guerrillas are freed and the guerrillas are forced back.
The U.S. has said an international force might be necessary to help the Lebanese army move into the south. The central government has long refused to send the army in, insisting Hezbollah is a legitimate force and fearing that doing so would lead to clashes between the guerrillas and the army and could tear the country apart on sectarian lines.
In a sign of the differences between the United States and Lebanon, Saniora presented his own package for a permanent solution that contained long-standing Lebanese complaints that must be addressed before "Lebanese authority can be spread over all areas," his office said.
It included a call for a "swift cease-fire." Then would come an over-all solution guaranteeing the return of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, Israel's withdrawal from the Chebaa Farms — a tiny border region that Lebanon claims — and the provision of minefields lain in south Lebanon during its 18-year occupation of the region.
Saniora met with Berri soon after Rice left Lebanon. Saniora has come out in favor of sending the military into the south in principle, but has insisted the Chebaa Farms issue must be resolved first.