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Middle East Diplomatic Efforts Intensify

Diplomatic efforts to end the latest conflict in the Middle East intensified, Tuesday, as United Nations diplomats met with senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem, after holding talks in Beirut. The talks took place as Israeli military officials warned their campaign in Lebanon could last several more weeks and could involve a large-scale ground incursion by Israeli troops.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says Israel would consider agreeing to a cease-fire in Lebanon, if Hezbollah militants release two Israeli soldiers they are holding and meet other conditions.

"This must include the effective deployment of the Lebanese armed forces throughout the south, in place of Hezbollah, and the disarming of Hezbollah as a militia," said Livni. "It must include a complete end to the shelling of Israeli cities. It must also include the prevention of Syria and Iran to rearm Hezbollah in the future."

Previously, Israeli officials had insisted that Hezbollah must be disarmed as a pre-condition to any cease-fire. Livni also says Israel's soldiers being held captive must be released without any preconditions.

Livni's comments came after a meeting with a three-man team of U.N. diplomats. Terje Roed-Larson, one of the three, told reporters the talks were "good and intensive," and that the U.N. team submitted a number of proposals to Israel to end the crisis.

"I think that both parties agree that it is necessary to have a political framework in order to reach eventually a cease-fire," said Roed-Larson.

No further details were available about the proposals, but U.N. officials say they expect both sides to spend several days studying them.

Speaking on Israeli Army Radio, Tuesday, the country's deputy army chief said the campaign against Hezbollah could last several more weeks. He also refused to rule out sending large numbers of Israeli ground troops into Lebanon.

Israeli ground troops withdrew from southern Lebanon, six years ago, after an 18-year occupation. Shlomo Brum, the former head of strategic planning for Israel's Army, says, if large numbers of ground troops do go back into Lebanon, they will not occupy the territory as they did in the past.

"My impression is that we are not going to repeat that mistake. That does not mean that ground forces will not used in this campaign," said Brum. "It is quite possible, but I think they will be used differently. We may perform incursions for the purpose of destroying Hezbollah forces, but then we will leave Lebanese territory. We will not stay there."

American officials say U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the region soon, in a further bid to end the crisis. However, U.S. officials have joined Israel in expressing skepticism about any plans to deploy international peacekeepers in Lebanon to enforce any future ceasefire. The Americans also say they do not believe an immediate cease-fire would end the crisis.

Meanwhile, Israel carried numerous air strikes against targets in Lebanon, Tuesday. Hezbollah militants retaliated with a barrage of rocket fire against Israel's third-largest city, Haifa, where rockets struck the city's port and rail yard.