KUALA LUMPUR, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would return to the Middle East “when it is right” but gave no timetable, dashing hopes she would launch a new Middle East peace drive on Friday.
Rice had been set to leave Malaysia, where she was attending a meeting of Asian leaders, but her staff said she delayed her departure until Saturday.
It was unclear where she would go to next but Rice indicated it was too early to use her diplomatic muscle and push for a ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel, which has been pounding Hezbollah in southern Lebanon for over two weeks.
“I am going to return to the Middle East. The question is when is it right for me to return to the Middle East,” she told a news conference after taking part in a global security forum in Malaysia.
The two key U.S. negotiators on the Middle East — Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and senior White House official Elliott Abrams, are in Israel and Rice said she was consulting with them over when she should return.
“We hope to achieve an early end to this violence,” she said. “That means that we have to help the parties establish conditions that will make it possible for an early ceasefire,” Rice added.
The United States has come under heavy criticism after it convinced Arab and European leaders at a conference in Rome not to publicly demand an immediate ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel but rather to say that they would work urgently to reach a sustainable ceasefire.
At least 456 people, mostly civilians, have been confirmed killed in Lebanon and 51 Israelis, including 18 civilians, have died since the conflict was triggered on July 12 when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid.
Last November, Rice stayed up all night in Jerusalem cajoling the Palestinians and the Israelis towards a deal allowing for the crossing of goods between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
That deal has since collapsed but Washington hopes Rice can use the same kind of influence to coerce Lebanon and Israel towards a ceasefire. Washington has said Syrian-backed Hezbollah, which also gets help from Iran, will not be party to any agreement.
Issues on the table include the creation of an international force on the border region between southern Lebanon and Israel, a prisoner exchange, the disarming of Hezbollah and the right of Lebanon to have total sovereignty over all its territory.