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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 July 2006, 21:05 GMT 22:05 UK
Diary: Rice's Mid-East mission
BBC State Department correspondent Jonathan Beale
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News State Department correspondent

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on a mission to the Middle East to seek a "lasting solution" to the crisis between Israel and Lebanon. She met regional leaders in Beirut, Jerusalem and the West Bank before heading to Rome for a conference on the issue. Our correspondent is following her trip.

26 JULY: GETTING HER OWN WAY?

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Rome
The US secretary of state looked relaxed
Condoleezza Rice looked a lot more relaxed and happy today. More than she has on previous stops of her visit. Her surroundings might have helped - there are few cities as beautiful. But her smiles suggested more that she was getting her own way.

The language of the final text that emerged from the International Conference for Lebanon reflected the views of the US secretary of state rather than those of, for example, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In his address to the conference Mr Annan said that "first and foremost we need an immediate cessation of hostilities".

What they ended up expressing was their "determination to work immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a ceasefire" - that must be "lasting permanent and sustainable".

Those last three words now very familiar to anyone who's been following Condi's Middle East mission. One source who witnessed the negotiations told the BBC that foreign ministers spent one-and-a-half hours arguing about the word "immediate".

It appeared in the final text - but not where Mr Annan wanted it.

It may seem like fiddling while Rome - or in this case Beirut - burns, but words are important in international diplomacy and the Americans say they did not want to be in position where they committed themselves to a ceasefire that they felt could not be delivered.

They were still however in the minority.

The frenetic diplomatic activity is now likely to switch to the UN headquarters in New York.

The UN Security Council will have to agree a mandate for any international force. But at the moment it is a phantom army. No country has yet offered to put its troops on the ground.

Rice has now flown on to Malaysia for an Asian summit. There is a strong possibility that she will return to the Middle East on her way back. Me - I'm going to bed.

26 JULY: PRESSURE FOR CEASEFIRE

Awoke at 0300 to get through security at Tel Aviv airport to get the flight to Rome. Pleased to see that my friends at Fox News had as tough a time getting past the Israeli officials as me!

Now in Rome it seems that a plan is emerging to put an international force on the ground in Lebanon. Of course the deaths of four UN observers adds to the pressure on Israel to halt its military operations. But the details of who'll provide the troops and their rules of engagement still have to be worked out.

Kofi Annan's comments suggesting that the UN observers may have been deliberately targeted by the IDF will no doubt raise tensions over the calls for an immediate ceasefire.

25 JULY: LOFTY AMBITIONS

It has been frenetic activity for Condi over the past few days, but the wheels of US diplomacy still appear to be turning slowly - too slowly for many countries.

Of course Tony Blair added to the pressure with his now infamous G8 microphone moment with President Bush. The gist of his unguarded conversation was that if he went to the Middle East he could "just talk", but if Condi went she "would have to succeed".

Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice has a tough task ahead of her

There is at present little to suggest that Condi will succeed. In fact as she heads off to Rome for a crisis summit on the conflict, there is a strong chance that the US will look increasingly isolated.

The majority of the dozen or so countries attending want a ceasefire as soon as possible. The Americans are still thinking in lofty, ambitious terms of creating a "new Middle East".

That clearly will not happen overnight.

This afternoon she was in Ramallah. Travelling in her motorcade we avoided the large demonstration of angry Palestinians - but we witnessed the shut up shops in protest.

The rather isolated, embattled Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, may have been pleased to see the US secretary of state - but many Palestinians were certainly not.

The ramshackle "Arafat" compound still looks like a mess long after the Israeli tanks and bulldozers have left.

They are building a new memorial for the former PLO leader, whose image still adorns the compound.

But on the three occasions I've been here with Ms Rice, she has never bothered to go and have a look - never a big fan really. President Bush refused to meet him.

It's to the ruins of Rome next - but we're not holding our breath for a big announcement. We've been told that Condoleezza Rice will only be making a statement - and will not be taking questions from reporters.

25 JULY: IMAGE PROBLEM

We're getting a clearer sense of Condoleezza Rice's long-term objectives in the crisis. Before she left Washington she likened the violence to "the birth pangs of a new Middle East". Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words given the suffering.

But today, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she once again talked of creating a "new Middle East".

Condoleezza Rice shakes hands with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah
Mr Abbas may have welcomed Ms Rice, but few others did
It's the reason why Washington is so reluctant to criticise Israel's military operations. The Bush administration see the Israeli offensive on Hezbollah in the context of its two main foreign policy goals - winning the war on terror and spreading democracy.

Others would argue that fighting a war on terror only recruits more terrorists and spreads resentment rather than encouraging democracy to flourish. But this argument does not seem to "compute" with the US administration.

Condoleezza Rice no doubt has a very difficult task trying to resolve this crisis. But there's a woman travelling with her who - some would argue - has an even tougher assignment.

Karen Hughes is the US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. It's probably the world's most challenging PR job. If Karl Rove is Bush's brain, Karen Hughes is his heart.

She was the one who helped the president reach out to all those "soccer moms" in his political rise from Texas. It's hard to say that she's made much of an impact yet - opinion polls around the world suggest that America still has a huge image problem.

It's also difficult to see her precise role here. She is of course totally eclipsed by the presence of Condi Rice.

We're now off to Ramallah with Rice. She wants to give her support to the embattled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Not sure if it will help him in his current difficulties though.

24 JULY: INDELIBLE STAINS

My colleagues who were travelling with Condi Rice in Beirut have just arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem.

I'm naturally jealous, though - they all bear indelible stains of helicopter hydraulic oil on their light coloured summer clothes. Apparently it sprayed over everyone - including the secretary of state - as they were on their way back to Cyprus.

Colleagues who have threadbare, dated clothes are annoyed. Imagine how she feels with her thousand-dollar suits.

The state department seems to have been sparing with details on the surprise Lebanon visit.

There was no press conference with Condi - no interviews - basically no information from the meetings that she had - other than to deny what everyone else seems to be reporting that some of them went badly.

In fact there's a lock-down mentality. No press conference with Lebanon's prime minister, no media availability with Israel's foreign minister other than a few bland opening remarks and no opportunity to question Rice after she meets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The more difficult the mission - the less they want to talk. We're hoping for someone to brief tonight - it could be a long wait.

24 JULY: AIMS AND OBJECTIVES

This is not quite the trip Condoleezza Rice had been planning. Before the crisis in Lebanon she had been due this week to visit Japan, China, South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam.

All those stops - bar Malaysia - have now been cancelled. The focus of that visit would have been North Korea and its long-range missiles.

So Condi has now just had to switch from one crisis to another. Madeleine Albright - the former Secretary of State - calls it the "perfect storm" of foreign policy: dark clouds closing in on Washington from every direction.

But I met an American friend at the airport who did not view it in such cataclysmic terms. In fact he thought the crisis in Lebanon was playing out quite well for President George W Bush.

This friend is a lawyer, not a journalist, so he is probably less influenced by what the media say. He thought the violence provided an opportunity to reshape the Middle East - very much in line with the administration's viewpoint, in fact.

And I can't help wondering whether this war will actually help Mr Bush and the Republican party come the mid-term elections.

It certainly takes Iraq off the front pages - and reminds voters that it's not just America fighting the "war on terror". But it's still too soon to judge its political effects.

Convoy

I've travelled ahead of Ms Rice to Jerusalem and will join her "bubble" when she arrives. I can't say I miss the food on Air Force Two, or being stuffed in cramped conditions in her plane alongside my fellow reporters.

But then there is the access. She normally comes to the back of the plane to talk and answer a few questions. Once she even appeared from her cabin to sing "Happy Birthday" to a colleague.

But in truth what I miss most is avoiding the queues at immigration and speeding through the streets in her convoy with a police escort. There can be few better ways of getting to your destination quickly.






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