Diplomats acknowledged Wednesday that any UN Security Council resolution to stop fighting in Lebanon could take until next week, as the United States and France struggled to bridge wide differences on what to do first: send in peacekeepers to disarm Hizbullah or impose a ceasefire.
The United States and France claimed they were making progress on a deal on a Security Council resolution, though the UN for the second time canceled a meeting of nations that could send peacekeepers to south Lebanon, reluctant to discuss such a force before a resolution was in place.
The decision came after France, which has led efforts for a diplomatic solution and could lead an international force, refused to participate in the US-backed meeting for the same reason.
"It's clear that it remains premature for such a meeting to be held because of the absence of an agreed political framework for ending the conflict," UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said. "If you don't have a mandate, how can you decide what kind of force you need?"
What to do first?
Officials gave conflicting accounts about when exactly a deal could be reached, but they appeared eager to make it look like they were moving forward toward a deal rather than stuck in deadlock as the conflict entered its fourth week Wednesday, with more than 600 dead on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday an agreement on how to end the fighting was possible within days, not weeks.
Yet Ghana's UN Ambassador Nana Effah-Apenteng, president of the Security Council for August, was more cautious. He indicated there would not be a Security Council meeting this week to allow all sides time to resolve their differences.
Diplomats said the US and France had neared a general agreement on the elements required for a lasting solution. Those include halting the fighting, disarming Hizbullah, deploying peacekeepers, and creating a buffer zone in south Lebanon free of Hizbullah terrorists and Israeli troops.
Tony Snow, spokesman for President Bush, said the US and France were working "on the same sheet of paper when it comes to what everybody said was an unbridgeable chasm with regard to Lebanon."
Yet the problem that has bedeviled them for days remains: they can't agree which steps to take first.
France wants immediate ceasefire
France, which has proposed a draft resolution on the framework, wants fighting to stop immediately, to create a political framework for peace, and then to send the troops. The US, on the other hand, wants all of those things done at the same time.
One proposed way out would be to break up action into two Security Council resolutions — one to halt fighting and deploy an initial vanguard of peacekeepers; and a second to impose a larger framework backed by a larger, longer-term foreign troop presence.
"I'm confident that by tomorrow we'll be in a position to have discussions in the council on a text which actually takes us forward," Britain's UN Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry said. "Prospects now of adoption soon of a resolution have improved considerably."
Once an agreement is reached, the rest of the council will have to be consulted.
Any resolution will also have to gain the acceptance of Lebanon and Israel, which could prove difficult.
Israel has said it wants an armed force with a mandate to confront terrorists and seeks NATO involvement. Lebanon, however, wants an expansion of the current UN peacekeeping force, deployed in south Lebanon since 1978.
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his country would stop its offensive only after a robust international peacekeeping force is in place in southern Lebanon — something likely to take weeks at a minimum.
Effah-Apenteng told reporters that the United States was the only member in the 15-nation Security Council that opposed the French demand for an immediate halt to fighting.
Asked if any other council member shared the US view, he said: "From my reading of the situation, no."
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on Wednesday pointed at the US refusal to rein in Israel as the reason the fighting has continued.
"The American position is that of stubbornness. We are confused by the US position. We want the US to stand by Lebanon," he told a news conference in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah.