U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns to the Middle East on Saturday in a new diplomatic drive to get agreement on conditions for a ceasefire after 18 days of fighting between Israel and Hizbollah.

After delaying her departure from Malaysia by a day, partly because of the Jewish Sabbath according to officials, Rice kicks off her talks in Jerusalem where two of her top Middle East mediators have been laying the groundwork.

President Bush said in Washington Rice had the task of getting both sides to discuss a U.N. resolution to be put forward next week to stop the war between Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon and Israeli forces.

“(Rice’s) instructions are to work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable U.N. Security Council resolution that we can table next week,” said Bush, who has blamed Hizbollah and its main allies Syria and Iran for the conflict.

It is Rice’s second trip in less than a week to the region.

Rice had said she would return to the Middle East only when the time was right for a lasting solution to end the war in which 462 people in Lebanon have been killed. The Israeli death toll is 51.

“We hope to achieve an early end to this violence,” Rice told a news conference in Malaysia. “That means that we have to help the parties establish conditions that will make it possible for an early ceasefire.”


U.S. officials said there was still a lot of work to do to get the two sides to sign up to conditions for a ceasefire in the war, triggered on July 12 when Hizbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and senior White House official Elliott Abrams have been in Israel working on a “political framework” for a deal, said one U.S. senior official, who declined to be named.

The official said Rice was expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and possibly Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Issues on the table include deploying an international force on the border between Lebanon and Israel, a prisoner exchange, the disarming of Hizbollah and the right of Lebanon to have sovereignty over all its territory.

The official said it was unclear whether the U.N. resolution would be ready by Monday.

While Rice’s first stop is Israel, officials said she would go wherever she was needed to get the job done. “This is evolving hour by hour,” said the senior U.S. official.

Rice’s return to the region puts her reputation at stake.

Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution said the Arab world held the United States responsible for Israel’s behavior and believed the Jewish state had been given a green light by Washington to continue launching attacks on Lebanese targets.

“The feeling is that Israel is doing Washington’s work in the Middle East,” said Telhami.

An international conference in Rome this week on the conflict disappointed Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and drew widespread condemnation by stopping well short of calling for an immediate end to the war.

Siniora would also like Israel to pull out of the disputed Shebaa farms border area, an issue he raised in Rome.

Israel took over the tiny region during the 1967 Middle East War. The United Nations and Israel both say Shebaa is Syrian land while Lebanon argues it belongs to Beirut.

“I am not saying that Israel has to give up Shebaa Farms, but Lebanon has always made that an important issue,” said the senior U.S. official.

© 2006 Reuters