The Bush administration reported progress Tuesday toward building an international peacekeeping force for Lebanon. But Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres said in Washington peace in Lebanon may still be weeks away.
Bush administration officials say they expect action in the U.N. Security Council as early as this week on a new international force for Lebanon.
But they're less optimistic about a cease-fire accord under which the force might be introduced into the region, with White House spokesman Tony Snow saying an immediate halt to the fighting doesn't seem to be in the cards.
The comments came amid intensive diplomacy at the United Nations, where Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with ambassadors of the five permanent Security Council member countries, and in Washington where Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres met senior administration officials.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States urgently wants to see a lasting and durable solution to the Lebanese violence and that real progress on the diplomatic front was being made behind the scenes.
He declined specific comment about what the United States may be telling Israel about its offensive in Lebanon, but did say it is pressing the Israelis to avoid further harm to Lebanese civilians and the country's civilian infrastructure. "We don't provide the Israeli military advice on conducting its operations. We do talk in general terms about the fact that it is absolutely essential, absolutely essential, to avoid civilian casualties. This is very, very important. Also it is essential that they don't take actions that undermine the Lebanese government and its infrastructure," he said.
Israeli deputy premier Peres held separate meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House national Security Adviser Steven Hadley.
He told reporters here Israel has no intention of permanently reoccupying parts of Lebanon, but neither will it allow Hezbollah to return to the border area from which it launched the kidnap raid that began the current hostilities.
The former Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel peace laureate said the hostilities will stop when an effective international force is in place and Hezbollah is neutralized militarily, a process he said could still take weeks.
"It will stop the minute there will be an international force that will control the southern part of Lebanon, and the hostages will be released, and the rockets and missiles will be controlled, and Hezbollah will stop being an army within an army. Then we shall have peace. In my judgment, it's not far away. You can count it in matters of weeks not months," he said.
Perez said he thought the fighting had reached a turning point this week, and that it was no accident that Hezbollah missile firings into Israel had droped markedly since Monday.
An Israeli official in the Peres party claimed Israel has destroyed 70 per cent of Hezbollah's long-range missile launchers and that the militia has hidden the rest, leaving only crude Katyusha artillery rockets to be fired into Israeli territory.
He also said despite press accounts of heavy resistance by the Shiite group, Israel has inflicted devastating damage to Hezbollah command centers, ammunition storage depots and other assets, and that in his words Iran has lost its strategic arm in the Middle East.