Leading article: Disarray on the diplomatic frontline

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The Independent Online

After the tragedy in Qana there were some who dared to hope that a political resolution in Lebanon would now, finally, be imposed by the international community. On Tuesday, even the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose response had previously been one of deep prevarication, proclaimed that a ceasefire could be reached within days. At last, the tide seemed be turning. Yet those hopes are now turning to rubble. Bombing resumed on Tuesday night after a 48-hour pause and Israeli forces pushed deep into south Lebanon. Israel does not seem to think this war is going to end any time soon. Indeed, there are signs that the operation, far from winding down, is in fact widening.

This leaves Israel in the unusual position of being out of step with its powerful international supporter and protector, the United States. How can we explain this? The likelihood of a rift is slim. The suspicion is that two messages are actually coming out of the US: one from the State Department for international consumption, and another, privately, from President Bush to the Israeli Government. Some believe the White House could even be encouraging a ground invasion of southern Lebanon, believing that Israel is fighting a valuable proxy war against Iran and Syria. The fact that the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, emerged from a meeting with President Bush's National Security Adviser at the White House on Tuesday to speak of operations lasting "a matter of weeks", not the "days" Ms Rice had suggested, certainly seems to support this theory.

Regardless of the truth of these suspicions, there can be no doubt that the international efforts to secure an end to this conflict are in disarray. There is still no agreement on the mandate of an international force to be deployed to Lebanon, nor has its composition even been determined. Israel says it will not halt its operations until an international force is actually deployed in the south of Lebanon. But some countries are refusing to even join such a force until a ceasefire is called. The result is diplomatic stasis.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the crisis enters its fourth week. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, claims the infrastructure of Hizbollah has been "entirely destroyed". But more than 160 rockets were fired into Israel yesterday, the biggest single-day barrage so far. It included a missile that reached 45 miles into Israel. These are not indications of a broken organisation. If this war is about wiping Hizbollah out, it has barely begun.

Yet despite the uncompromising rhetoric, there are signs that the Israeli government is searching for a way out. Yesterday's risky raid on a hospital in Baalbek, 60 miles inside Lebanon, seems to have been a failed attempt to locate its kidnapped soldiers, whose abduction sparked this operation in the first place. And it is noteworthy that Israeli ministers are taking much more of an interest in the United Nations force than they were a week ago. Israeli public opinion may be firmly in favour of continuing the unilateral military operation against Hizbollah, but its leaders are increasingly conscious of the danger of getting sucked into conflict without end, or even a new Lebanese occupation.

At such a moment the Security Council has a duty to resolve its disagreements and impose a settlement. It must demand an immediate ceasefire from both sides, and deploy an international force to ensure it is respected. This will create problems of its own. The dreadful fate of the previous international force in Lebanon cannot be brushed aside. Lebanon is in the midst of a humanitarian disaster and Israel, through its disproportionate actions, has become a danger even to its own future security. The outside world has no choice but to step in.

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