A senior American diplomat I talked with yesterday predicted that finding a solution to the Israel-Hezbollah conflict would be a "long hard slog" -- echoing Donald Rumsfeld's infamous words about Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already been working with her staff behind the scenes, speaking with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, as well as France and other European countries about a way forward. The key to ending hostilities in a way acceptable to both Israel and the United States will be the cooperation of Syria, one of Hezbollah's major sponsors, and acquiescence by Iran. The United States can't talk to Syria anymore, nor can it speak with Iran, so it will be up to other members of a "diplomatic coalition" to handle that part of the heavy lifting.
The plan will be to give support to Lebanon's government to take control of the country and disarm Hezbollah -- no small task given the enhanced position of authority Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seeking. In addition, the international community must band together to help rebuild Lebanon's shattered towns, cities and infrastructure. And there will be other aspects to a settlement -- an international force to help keep the peace, a buffer zone along the border with Israel and measures to keep arms out of the hands of Hezbollah fighters.
The diplomatic wheels will really start turning when Rice visits the region -- most likely next week on her way to the ASEAN conference in Kuala Lumpur. Rice may drop off a few diplomats so they can work on a deal while she's in southeast Asia. Then, she'll likely circle back on her return and pick up the negotiations. State Department officials say that Secretary Rice is fully prepared to engage in the sort of intense shuttle diplomacy that Middle East deal-making has demanded, but not to reaffirm the status quo.
The United States is determined to see that any negotiated settlement of this crisis substantially changes the situation on the ground. The White House is content, for the moment, to allow Israel to continue its bombardment in hopes it can further degrade Hezbollah's capabilities. But diplomats say they are very much aware of the rising international criticism of the violence, and every day they reassess how much patience they have for Israel's military campaign.
Meantime, people on both sides of the border continue to suffer.