U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will go to the Middle East on Sunday while resisting international pressure for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

With tensions rising at the Israeli-Lebanese border, Rice told a news conference on Friday she hoped her trip would create conditions for a lasting Middle East peace but acknowledged her diplomatic work would be difficult.

She said she would visit Israel and the Palestinian territories and join Arab officials, including from Lebanon, at an international conference on the crisis in Rome. An Italian spokesman said it would be held next Wednesday.

Some U.S. analysts doubt Rice’s prospects for stopping 10 days of fighting because of her reluctance to talk to key players — Hizbollah and its backers, Iran and Syria.

Resisting calls from the United Nations, Europe and the Arab world, she said an immediate ceasefire would produce a “false promise” that would allow Hizbollah to re-emerge in the future to attack Israel, the top U.S. ally in the region.

“An immediate ceasefire without political conditions does not make sense,” she said.

“If you simply look for a ceasefire … we will be back here in six months again,” she added. “What I won’t do is go to some place and try to get a ceasefire that I know isn’t going to last.”


Rice said she expected in Rome to meet officials from Lebanon and other Arab states in search of a permanent solution to the conflict that could bring about an end to the violence.

Italian, French, U.N. and European Union officials were also expected to attend, a U.S. official said.

As part of a political solution, Rice said there would be a need for a “robust” international force inside Lebanon but added that the United States was still discussing with its partners what its mandate would be.

U.S. troops were not anticipated in any expanded international peace force for Lebanon, she said.

Earlier on Friday, Rice was briefed at the United Nations on a U.N. mission’s findings after its trip to the region.

Before heading to the region, Rice will join President George W. Bush on Sunday for a meeting at the White House with Saudi officials to discuss the crisis.

The Bush administration also faced some pressure at home to do more to try to end the violence in the Middle East as U.S. Senate Democratic leaders called on the president to immediately appoint a special envoy to the Middle East.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter to Bush that they were “surprised” that Rice plans only a brief stop in the region.

“The United States needs to step forward and do the hard diplomatic work required to put in place a sustainable settlement and prevent a return to the status quo ante where Hizbollah attacked Israel at will,” they wrote, adding Israel has the right to defend itself and that they support Israel’s efforts to eliminate the threat posed by Hizbollah.

(Additional reporting by Carol Giacomo and Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations and Donna Smith in Washington)

© Reuters 2006