BEIRUT, Lebanon -- After more than two weeks of fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas, leaders from the Middle East to Washington and the United Nations signaled a sense of urgency yesterday to end the destabilizing conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns to the region today for the second round of shuttle diplomacy in a week. In the hours before her arrival, Hezbollah political leaders here reversed course yesterday and agreed to join a Lebanese government peace proposal aimed at stopping the fighting in the country's south.
Israel immediately dismissed Hezbollah's offer as disingenuous and said it was an indication of the guerrillas' weakness on the battlefield. But the Shiite Muslim militia's willingness to participate in the initiative shows a flexibility to negotiate that had not previously surfaced.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah announced that it used a new rocket to make its deepest strike yet into Israel.
As diplomacy appeared to quicken yesterday, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meeting at the White House, announced that they will push for a U.N. resolution next week to send an international force to southern Lebanon, although both leaders again refused to press for a cease-fire until Hezbollah is disarmed.
And at the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other diplomats said discussions were under way on a truce of 72 hours to enable the U.N. to evacuate children, the elderly and disabled from southern Lebanon; the formation of the international force; and the terms of a cease-fire.
"A cease-fire in these situations will have to be negotiated. I called for cessation of hostilities, which, hopefully, will lead to cease-fire," Annan said, saying that a temporary truce was necessary for the humanitarian work and to bring in any international force.
Annan and U.N. humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland expressed impatience at the international community's inability to agree more quickly on a strategy to stop the fighting. "Many battles are being fought on the soil of Lebanon, and some have absolutely nothing to do with Lebanon," Annan said.
But the seven-point Lebanese government peace plan is not likely to satisfy Israeli or U.S. officials.
"We'd take anything that Hezbollah says with a grain of salt," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. Referring to international talks this week in Italy, he added, "If they say they are on board with what was presented in Rome by the Lebanese government, I think they are being disingenuous."
The plan, for example, does not include the multinational force favored by the Bush administration. Instead, it calls for beefing up the largely ineffective 2,000-member U.N. force in place in the south.
The Lebanese proposal, which calls for an immediate cease-fire, also does not directly address the issue of disarmament that Israel, the United States and Britain consider essential to any settlement. It offers to exchange two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in the cross-border raid July 12 for three longtime Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora presented virtually the same plan at the talks in Rome but without the support of the two main Lebanese Shiite political parties, Hezbollah and Amal.
The political shift for Hezbollah and Amal came late Thursday night after a marathon Cabinet meeting chaired by Saniora. Two government ministers representing Hezbollah and three from Amal agreed to add their support despite reservations about the nature and scope of the U.N. peacekeeping force.
"We had some relatively small disagreements over details about the mandate of the international force, but we agreed in principle," said Tarrad Hamadeh, Lebanon's labor minister and a Hezbollah supporter.
Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a member of the Hezbollah central politburo, said in an interview that the group's political leaders decided to take the step after showing that its militia could hold its own on the battlefield despite an intense air and ground campaign by Israeli forces.
"The Israeli enemy has not accomplished its aims, so now is the time to find a way out of the impasse," Abu Zeinab said. "The continued bombing doesn't get them [Israel] anywhere; it is essential to move to the political stage."
Israel's Regev took the opposite view.
"Obviously the fighting is very difficult, and we have taken some casualties," Regev said. "However, this is a sign that Hezbollah doesn't feel it has the upper hand in this conflict and that our strategy is putting pressure on them. I think it's a sign that our strategy is on track."
Israeli forces continued to pound Lebanon with heavy bombing yesterday. Israel also reported yesterday that an attack on what officials called a Hezbollah base in the Bekaa Valley the day before had killed Nur Shalhoub, whom it identified as a senior Hezbollah official. Hezbollah did not immediately confirm the claim.
In southern Lebanon's border zone, Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas again engaged in running clashes in and near the town of Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold. In what the Israeli army described as heavy exchanges of fire over a period of hours, both sides took casualties. The army claimed that more than 20 Hezbollah fighters were killed and said an unspecified number of Israeli soldiers were injured.
On Wednesday, nine Israeli soldiers were killed in and near the town, Israel's biggest one-day military loss since the offensive began.
And Hezbollah announced that it used a new rocket, the Khaibar-1, to strike the northern Israeli town of Afula. Guerrilla rockets have hit near the town before, but the attack was the deepest yet.
Israeli police said seven rockets hit outside Afula but caused no injuries.
The strike came two days after Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed that his guerrillas would fire rockets beyond Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, which has been hit repeatedly.
Israeli authorities said the rocket was likely a renamed Fajr-5, an Iranian-made weapon whose 45-mile range could hit the northern outskirts of Tel Aviv. It would be the first time Hezbollah has launched a Fajr-5, after firing hundreds of smaller Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.
Yesterday, guerrillas also fired more than 100 smaller rockets at several northern Israeli towns, the Israeli army said. One rocket hit the top-floor window of the main hospital in the Israeli border town of Nahariya. No casualties were reported in the rocket fire.
When Rice arrives in Jerusalem, she is expected to meet in Israel with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and possibly Defense Minister Emir Peretz.
Rone Tempest and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.