KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will return to the Middle East this weekend to try working out an agreement for a multinational force aimed at bringing an end to the Israeli-Hezbollah fighting.
Rice plans to arrive in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, according to senior State Department officials traveling with her who requested anonymity. One official said she's expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
"I do think it is important that groundwork be laid so I can make the most of whatever time I can spend there," Rice told reporters at a meeting on Asian issues.
President Bush, holding a news conference in Washington Friday with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, announced Rice's return to the region she visited earlier in the week amid escalating violence.
"She will work with the leaders of Israel and Lebanon to seize this opportunity to achieve lasting peace and stability for both of their countries," Bush said.
Among the items Rice is seeking is an international agreement on a U.N.-mandated multinational force that can provide stability there.
Details to be worked out include what the international force would look like, including whether the troops would be stationed around Lebanon or just in the tense, Shiite-dominated south. Also under consideration is the role of Lebanese forces and whether international troops would secure Lebanon's ports and airports.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said other possible elements of a proposal for the ending the conflict included:
— Disarming Hezbollah and integrating the guerrilla force into the Lebanese army.
— Urging Hezbollah to return Israeli prisoners.
— A commitment to resolve the status of Chebaa Farms, a small piece of land held by Israel and claimed by Lebanon.
— Setting up a "no-go" buffer zone in southern Lebanon.
— An international reconstruction plan for Lebanon.
Elements of the proposal were first reported Friday evening by ABC News.
Rice's spokesman, Adam Ereli, took strong issue with an assertion by Israel's Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who said the failure of world leaders to call for an immediate cease-fire at a summit in Rome gave Israel a green light to carry on its campaign to crush Hezbollah.
"Any such statement is outrageous," Ereli said. "The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict."
Rice also said: "I think everybody in Rome agreed that we can't return to the circumstances that led us to this in the first place."
The United States, adopting a diplomatic stance that has not been embraced by most allies, has been insisting that any cease-fire to the violence must come with conditions to address long-standing regional disputes.
Nearly every U.S. ally — but Britain and Israel — has called for a quick truce to end the bloodshed, along with efforts to smooth needed humanitarian supplies to the Lebanese. They believe the difficult work solving of old grievances between Hezbollah and Israel can come later.
Rice has spent three days dashing to high-stakes meetings in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Rome, and then traveled to Malaysia on Thursday for the long-planned conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Rice also sent the administration's two leading Middle East experts, Elliot Abrams and David Welch, to Jerusalem Thursday to handle detailed negotiations on the contents of a U.N. Security Council resolution that will be offered next week.
Besides agreement on a multinational force, Rice has said the United States is seeking an acknowledgment under standing international agreements that Lebanon has sovereignty throughout its entire territory and an agreement that there be no militias inside the state.
Rice got a warm welcome during her stop in Israel this week. But she has faced a series of difficult sessions with world leaders elsewhere who take exception to the course the U.S. is charting in the conflict on the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Sitting beside Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar at a news conference, Rice said, "I recognize the tremendous concern that the Malaysian government and other governments here have about the unfolding situation in the Middle East."
"We all are concerned about the humanitarian situation there and want to see as early an end to the conflict as possible," she added. "Whole generations have grown up there without the prospect for peace."
Asked what she hoped to accomplish when she returns to the region, Rice said, "We hope to achieve an early end to this violence. ... That means that we have to help the parties establish conditions that will make it possible for an early cease-fire that, nonetheless, does not return us to the status quo."
She said the terms and conditions of a such a cease-fire would involve "a multinational force under U.N. supervision" that would have a mandate to enforce a peace agreement.