Broad outlines began to emerge Monday of an international plan to end hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah by this weekend.
With the US now joining its international partners in calling for a cease-fire to be reached this week, attention moves to the United Nations. France is floating a plan for a peacekeeping force expected to number as many as 20,000 troops.
But can the US and its European and Arab partners cement an agreement that allows them to impose international will over warring parties that are far from reaching any accord themselves.
Clouding the picture was postponement of a meeting scheduled for Monday at the UN to begin preliminary planning for an international enforcement mission to Lebanon. The postponement reflected consensus among UN officials that a political agreement has to come first.
"The Middle East is famous for agreements that seem to be in hand and then slip away. But in this instance, the determination to end a tragic situation seems to be there," says Michael O'Hanlon, a Middle East policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's a moment for strong American leadership," he says, and for "international determination to impose conditions."
The urgency of reaching an cease-fire accord was brought into full relief by Israel's bombing Sunday in the village of Qana that left more than 50 civilians dead, many of them children. But the success of the week's diplomatic efforts will also depend significantly on Hizbullah, and how it responds to the temporary and partial cessation of air operations that Israel approved after the Qana bombing.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that no cease-fire would be forthcoming.
In addition to creation of the international force, a plan beginning to take shape would include:
• Deployment of the Lebanese Army in areas until now controlled by Hizbullah
• An international embargo on rearming Hizbullah.
• Exchange of prisoners and Israel's willingness to discuss the status of disputed lands along the Israeli-Lebanese border – actions predicated on Hizbullah's release of Israeli soldiers being held hostage.
President Bush continued to call for a "sustainable peace" Monday rather than an immediate cease-fire. Speaking in Florida, Mr. Bush said the US was working to "lay the groundwork for a lasting peace in the Middle East."
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was calling for an agreement to end hostilities this week – something she said was possible with international determination. Israel, which favors creation of an international peace enforcement presence in southern Lebanon, was also said to be preparing for a cessation of military operations as early as the weekend.
"It's a pretty ambitious deadline given the delaying stance the administration had taken until now," says Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department planning staff member and now a Middle East expert at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Mr. Jentleson says two "crucial elements" stand out that will determine success: an international community that demonstrates a firm united front; and an agreement for a peace-enforcing mission that operates under a clear mandate for enforcement.
The international community was unable to demonstrate such unity either at the G-8 summit in Russia earlier this month or at a meeting on the crisis last week in Rome, Jentleson notes – indicating that achieving unity won't be easy.
As for any mission's mandate, "that will include the authorization to take on Hizbullah," he says. "If it [an agreement] is just a headline, it won't be sustainable."
On Monday, France, which holds the presidency of the UN Security Council, began circulating a resolution that calls for deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon between the border with Israel and the Litani River. The draft resolution calls for only Lebanese Army forces and the UN-mandated force to be permitted in that zone.
France is emerging as the probable lead of an international force, given its close ties to Lebanon. Other countries could include Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Turkey. Inclusion of Muslim countries would be essential to avoid having the force perceived as a Western imposition.
The French draft resolution calls for full implementation of UN Resolution 1559 from last year, which already called for the disarming of militias operating in Lebanon – a clear reference to Hizbullah.
Brookings' Mr. O'Hanlon says an international embargo on rearming Hizbullah would essentially require creation of an international customs force at Lebanon's border with Syria. That could probably work without Syria's cooperation with a border inspection force of about 1,000 members, he says.
But more broadly, Syria and Iran, Hizbullah's patrons, will be central to how well any plan works. And international tensions are already surfacing on their involvement, with France signaling a willingness to engage Iran on the issue.
But the US – having learned again that a stand-alone position was not working in quelling an international crisis, may have to swallow the inclusion of countries it considers objectionable in the negotiations, some observers say. "What we're seeing from the administration," O'Hanlon says, "is some kind of acknowledgment that this crisis is just too tragic to be allowed to spin further out of control."