World

U.S. won't pressure Israel for quick end to violence: Rice

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Washington has no plans to press Israel for a quick end to its military campaign in Lebanon.

The United States is looking for a "sustainable peace" in the Middle East and won't pressure Israel for a quick end to its military campaign in the region, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Palestinian and Israeli leaders Tuesday.

Rice is on her first visit to the region since Israel launched its aerial bombardment of the Lebanese-based militant organization Hezbollah and its targets in southern Lebanon 14 days ago.

At a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Rice said the U.S. has "great concerns about the sufferings of innocent people" in the region, but said a lasting peace must be reached.

"We need to get to a sustainable peace, there must be a way for people to reconcile their differences," said Rice, who was greeted with large protests in Ramallah.

There's a general strike Tuesday throughout the West Bank in protest against Israel's military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza, triggered by Hezbollah and Palestinian raids and the capture of three Israeli soldiers.

Hundreds of demonstrators in Ramallah briefly clashed with Palestinian police, throwing rocks as police beat them back with sticks.

Close to 400 people in Lebanon, including soldiers and Hezbollah fighters, have died in the bombing. At least 37 Israelis, including 17 civilians and 20 soldiers, have died in Hezbollah rocket attacks.

Abbas called for an immediate end tothe month-long Gaza crisis and saidthe Palestinian Authority is working for the release of one of the Israeli soldiers,believed to be held captive in Gaza.

Rice said the U.S.was alsoworking to end the Gaza crisis and reiterated Washington's commitment to a future two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Washington won't press Israel

Earlier Tuesday, Rice called for a "new Middle East" before meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.

"It is time for a new Middle East," she said. "It is time to say to those that don't want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail. They will not."

She reiterated Washington's position that it wouldn't press Israel for a quick ceasefire until there were conditions for a lasting peace.

"We want to end the violence so that innocent people can return to a free life. We need to do that in a way that is enduring and that means that we cannot return to a status quo," said Rice.

Olmert said Israel would continue to fight Hezbollah to prevent rocket attacks against Israeli citizens.

"We are using a basic elementary right of self-defence against terrorist organizations," said Olmert.

"As you know, we are not fighting the Lebanese government and we are not fighting the Lebanese people. The Lebanese government, I hope, will make efforts to distance itself from Hezbollah and terrorist organizations."

Rice meets Lebanese PM

Rice spent Monday in Lebanon after making a surprise visit to Beirut, meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the country's parliamentary Speaker, Nabih Berri.

In a two-hour meeting with Siniora, she thanked the prime minister for his country's "courage and steadfastness," but dashed Lebanese hopes for an immediate ceasefire.

In a meeting that appeared tense, Siniora told Rice that Israel's bombardment had taken his country "backwards 50 years," the prime minister's office said.

Berri, a veteran Lebanese politician who is Hezbollah's de facto negotiator, rejected proposals brought by Rice almost as soon as she left their 45-minute meeting.

Berri said a ceasefire and negotiations for a prisoner swap are a prerequisite fornegotiations on Hezbollah's status in Lebanon.

The U.S. wants Hezbollah to pull its weapons back from the Israeli border and the fighting to stop when an international stabilization force arrives.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said it was "unfair" to characterize Rice's talks in Beirut as a failure.

With files from the Associated Press.