Washington The United States and France reached a tentative agreement Thursday evening on a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for a cease-fire in Lebanon and the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops, diplomats from three nations said.
The cease-fire document, which the diplomats described as virtually complete, could be voted on as early as today or Saturday.
The draft resolution, which takes into account strong objections from Arab governments, calls for the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force to southern Lebanon in addition to the dispatch of 15,000 troops from the Lebanese army.
Israel, which sent its troops into Lebanon in reprisal for rocket firings by the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, would withdraw them in stages as the combined force of Lebanese troops and U.N. peacekeepers moved in, diplomats said.
The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing, described the deal as nearly complete, pending final approval in Beirut, Jerusalem, Paris and Washington.
"We're close to an agreement. To say it will be sealed tonight - that's a wish," said one European diplomat.
The deal was struck after Israel threatened to expand its ground offensive against Hezbollah, an escalation of the war that could further undermine Lebanon's frail democratic government, weaken pro-Western Arab regimes and perhaps incite Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Iran.
The conflict, which began on July 12 after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli army reservists and began firing rockets into northern Israel, has killed more than 1,000 Lebanese and more than 100 Israelis. Much of Lebanon's infrastructure and thousands of homes have been damaged and destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of citizens in northern Israel have taken to bomb shelters or been evacuated.
It remains to be seen how fast an international force can take the field, whether diplomacy will stop the fighting and whether the outcome will weaken or strengthen Hezbollah.
"When this is settled, they're going to be the 2-ton elephant in the room," Vali Nasr, the author of a new book on the revival of Shiite Islam, said earlier Thursday.
Hezbollah has demanded a full and immediate Israeli withdrawal as part of any cease-fire, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has insisted that Israel will not live under the threat of future Hezbollah rocket attacks.
Nor was it immediately clear how or whether Hezbollah would be disarmed, which U.S. and Israeli officials have said is their central goal.
The U.N. force won't be empowered to disarm the group, and Lebanon's weak army is not believed to have the will or capability to do so.
That means that Hezbollah and its charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, would have three basic choices about how to respond to a U.N. cease-fire:
¢ The group could pocket the political capital it's gained by battling the Israelis, abide by the cease-fire and disarm. That, however, would mean abandoning the battle against Israel that's helped give the militants legitimacy.
¢ Rather than risk a longer war that could erode its support in Lebanon, Hezbollah could give up some weapons, try to hide the rest and lie low for a while. That might be possible because no one knows how many weapons it has, but its largest rockets and other weapons would be hard to conceal.
¢ Having fought the Israeli Defense Forces to what amounts to a stand-off this time, and having driven Israeli, American, British, French and Italian forces out of Lebanon in the past, Hezbollah could turn on foreign forces again, using the improvised explosives, suicide bombers, ambushes and other tactics that were effective before and are taking a toll on U.S. and Iraqi forces in Iraq today.
A second diplomat said that one focus of the cease-fire resolution is an arms embargo intended to stop new shipments of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran and Syria.
That would be a scaling-back of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's original goals in ending the conflict.
A senior State Department official said that Hezbollah's disarmament will "get worked out somewhere down the road" and "within the Lebanese political system."
Still, he said, "We feel like we've got a deal that should be able to work, not only with the French, but more importantly with the Lebanese and the Israelis."
France has offered to lead the international force and supply several thousand peacekeeping troops. President Bush and Rice have said the United States would not supply troops, but could help with logistics.
As envisioned under the resolution, the international force would be an expanded and strengthened version of the existing U.N. force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, or United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.