WASHINGTON, AP – White House officials said President Bush remains opposed to an immediate cease-fire to stop violence in the Middle East, despite personal pleas from ally Saudi Arabia that he help stop the bloodshed.
Saudi King Abdullah beseeched Bush to intervene in Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the death toll is approaching 400 after less than two weeks of bombing. Abdullah’s request was hand-delivered to Bush by Saudi officials who requested a meeting Sunday at the White House.
“We requested a cease-fire to allow for a cessation of hostilities,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters as he departed the West Wing.
“I have brought a letter from the Saudi king to stop the bleeding in Lebanon, and there has been an agreement to save Lebanese lives, Lebanese properties and what the Lebanese have built, and to save this country from the ordeal it is facing,” Saud said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also participated in the Oval Office meeting before making a surprise visit to Lebanon on Monday in a show of support for that country’s weakened democracy, which is struggling to contain the fighting between the Hezbollah militia and Israel.
“We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal,” Rice told reporters traveling with her.
It was the first U.S. diplomatic effort on the ground since Israel began bombing Lebanon on July 12. The fighting has killed hundreds in Lebanon and dozens in Israel.
The Bush administration has refused to press for an immediate cease-fire in the conflict.
“Our position on an immediate cease-fire is well known and has not changed,” said White House national security spokesman Frederick Jones.
On the way to a refueling stop in Ireland, Rice discussed the possibility of working with Syria to resolve the crisis. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has blamed Syria, along with Iran, for stoking the recent violence by encouraging Hezbollah to attack northern Israel.
“The problem isn’t that people haven’t talked to the Syrians. It’s that the Syrians haven’t acted,” she said.
“It’s not as if we don’t have diplomatic relations,” she said. “We do.”
Officials from the United Nations, Europe and other Arab countries have already urged an end to the fighting. Rice and Bush have rejected calls for an immediate cease-fire, saying it does not make sense if the terrorist threat from Hezbollah is not addressed. They have said Israel has a right to defend itself from terrorism and Hezbollah must return two captured Israeli soldiers and stop firing missiles and rockets into Israel if they want the fighting to stop.
For years, the Saudis have been among the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world, despite strains from U.S. pressures aimed at increasing democracy in the conservative kingdom.
Nail al-Jubeir, a Saudi embassy spokesman, said the Saudis would not release the letter or get into other details of the proposal because it was a private communication between Abdullah and Bush. Asked whether the Saudis requested that Bush directly pressure Israeli leaders for a cease-fire, al-Jubeir said they cannot tell the president whom to telephone. But he noted Bush has a unique influence to negotiate with Israel.
“The U.S. has the authority, it has the clout with Israel,” he said. “For us to go and talk to the Israelis isn’t going to do anything.”
A White House spokeswoman, Eryn Witcher, would not comment on the Saudi proposal. She said Bush and the Saudis have “shared goals of helping the people of Lebanon and restoring sovereignty of the government of Lebanon and building stronger Lebanese armed forces.”
“They discussed the humanitarian situation and reconstruction and putting conditions in place for an end to violence,” Witcher said.
Witcher said participants in the meeting including Saud; Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the secretary general of the Saudi national security council; Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States; Adil al-Jubayr, the counselor to Abdullah; and Rihab Massoud, the deputy secretary general of the Saudi national security council.
Rice plans meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, she will go to Rome for sessions with representatives of European and moderate Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, with the goal of shoring up the weak democratic government in Lebanon.