US and France still working for vote on ceasefire

Senior diplomats from around the world scrambled today to wrap up a UN Security Council resolution aimed at ending the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, amid hopes that they could adopt a text by the end of the day.

Senior diplomats from around the world scrambled today to wrap up a UN Security Council resolution aimed at ending the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, amid hopes that they could adopt a text by the end of the day.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said France agreed to a new revised draft resolution, but it would need the approval of Israel and Lebanon to go forward.

With a deal just hours away, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to launch an expanded ground offensive in southern Lebanon, after expressing dissatisfaction over an emerging cease-fire deal, government officials said.

Yet even after the Israeli announcement, Rice said diplomacy continued.

“We’re working for a vote today. We’re working for a vote today,” she said as she entered the Security Council.

It was not immediately clear whether Israel was trying to pressure the Security Council, or whether Israel is really determined to send troops deeper into Lebanon.

Israeli government officials said their opposition was connected to a compromise by the US and France to accommodate Lebanese concerns surrounding a UN force already in Lebanon that would help co-ordinate the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the south.

Lebanon had objected to a US and French proposal giving the UN force, known by its acronym Unifil, a new mandate under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

A Chapter 7 mandate would give the force new, more robust diplomatic efforts to play themselves out.

Before the Israeli announcement, diplomats expressed optimism about a deal and a clear intention wrap up the resolution by the end of the day.

“We are very, very close to an agreement and our aspiration is to have a vote by the end of the afternoon today,” US Ambassador John Bolton said after yet another round of negotiations with France.

The latest draft appears to eliminate the prospect of a new, independent multinational force that would patrol a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon, opting instead to bolster the existing UN force in Lebanon, known as Unifil, and to make it more powerful. Israel also objects to that idea.

A senior US official in Washington said the US and France envision a 10-day timeframe between the moment a halt to the hostilities is declared and the moment Unifil troops go into action in the south.

Increasingly impatient that diplomacy has taken so long, Russia introduced its own resolution yesterday calling for a blanket 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire in Lebanon.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin sounded an alarm that the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon was reaching “catastrophic” proportions and said it was too urgent for diplomacy to go on much longer.

The Russian resolution also urged “extraordinary diplomatic efforts” for a deal on the US-French draft.

Churkin said he hoped his proposal would give them a renewed sense of urgency.

“War is raging in Lebanon and the humanitarian situation is getting catastrophic,” Churkin said. “We hope it will focus minds, it will energise politicians and diplomats.”

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also expressed frustration that a deal has remained elusive.

“I think we’ve had enough discussions,” he said. “The issues have been discussed all around and it is time for decision, and I hope the council will take firm action today.”

More than 800 people have died in the month-long conflict, hundreds of Lebanese civilians and dozens of Israelis.

The United States is chiefly concerned that Hezbollah not be allowed to re-infiltrate south Lebanon once a cessation of hostilities goes into effect. Washington has supported Israel’s insistence on staying in southern Lebanon until a robust international force is deployed, which could take weeks or months.

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