The Deal That Could Disarm Hizballah

  • Share
  • Read Later

Why is Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora weeping?

When he took office last year, Siniora represented the hopes of many Lebanese for peace and freedom after the country endured decades of neither. A banker by trade, he stepped into the shoes of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, a childhood friend, after Hariri's assassination in February 2005 ignited Lebanon's massive freedom protests. The White House hailed the Lebanese democracy mass movement as an inspiration to Arabs across the Middle East who dream for an end to tyranny. After the war in Lebanon erupted last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to besieged Beirut as a deliberate — and poignant — gesture of Washington's support for Siniora's government and Lebanon's quest for democracy.

Yet, when Siniora met with a group of Arab diplomats to discuss Washington's proposed U.N. resolution to end the war this week, he wept. "It barely leads to a cease-fire," he complained. Siniora insists on an immediate cease-fire and Israeli pullout to end the fighting, which has taken nearly 1,000 Lebanese lives and forced as many as 1 million citizens — incredibly, a quarter of the country's population — to flee as refugees to other parts of Lebanon. More tragedy may be on the way, as Israel implements plans this week to send even more forces into southern Lebanon rather than retreat. Equally important, Siniora wants the U.S. and the U.N. to accept his government's seven-point peace plan, which would entail the crucial, landmark move of sending the Lebanese army to replace Hizballah's guerrillas in southern Lebanon.

For Siniora's plan to succeed, however, he needs a major concession from Israel that was conspicuously absent in Washington's proposed resolution: Israel's withdrawal from the occupied strip of land known as Shebaa Farms. Israel occupied the territory, about 10 square miles or 25 square kilometers, in the 1967 war when it technically belonged to Syria (though Syria had ceded it to Lebanon in the 1950s and it was largely inhabited by Lebanese nationals ). Because the Syrian and Lebanese governments now claim it is part of Lebanon, Hizballah has been able to justify its continued attacks against Israel on the grounds that Israel, even after it ended its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, continues to occupy Lebanese land.

Most everybody in the Middle East knows this is nonsense, and the U.N. still officially regards Shebaa as part of Syria. (Part of the reason being that Syria, while publicly claiming Shebaa is part of Lebanon, won't agree to formally recognize it as such with the U.N., since its ruling Ba'athist party still at heart believes Lebanon is part of Syria.) The problem is that Hizballah, as the current crisis shows, has become a potent force in Lebanon, and the Lebanese army is not strong enough to disarm Hizballah, even if it had an order to do so. Siniora's government would be vulnerable to charges of treason if it gave such an order — considering this is the guerrilla group that successfully ended Israel's 22-year occupation — so long as Israel still occupies "Lebanon's" Sheba Farms.

If on the other hand it were able to gain it back as part of a cease-fire, Siniora would be able to tell Hizballah it's time to hand its its weapons over, become a political party that poses no military threat to Israel — and in the process, allow for some kind of international military force to patrol the border area. "Shebaa," a source close to the Lebanese government tells TIME, "is the only card Hizballah has been able to play in order to continue its 'resistance.'"

Until, that is, the current Israeli incursions and bombardments. Siniora's plan to end those attacks requires all leaders involved in the crisis to show courage. No doubt, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will lose face if he withdraws Israel's forces from Shebaa as the result of the war. In addition, the Bush Administration will in effect be granting concessions to Hizballah — which it considers a terrorist organization — if it pushed Israel to make such a move. The conundrum is that if Shebaa is not part of a deal, the war is likely to drag on, with the distinct possibility that Hizballah, while being degraded, will survive the conflict to fight another day.

Despite its impressive performance so far, Hizballah is not as strong as it seems right now. The conventional wisdom is that under the Israeli bombardments of their country, Lebanese are rallying around Hizballah and hailing its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. That may be true for the moment, as Lebanese vent their anger and express patriotic sentiments amid Israel's attacks. But not far beneath the surface, many Lebanese, including high government officials as well as Shi'ites themselves, are actually furious with Hizballah and Nasrallah. They blame the group for bringing on the devastation by senselessly provoking Israel with the operation to kidnap two Israeli soldiers on July 12. Now, while weeping over the death and destruction, they are quietly hoping that Israel's war achieves its intended result: the end of Hizballah's power.

But the truth is that will never happen on the battlefield, given Hizballah's deep-seated integration with the Shi'ite community, Lebanon's largest. Hizballah was initially formed to resist Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and no matter how hard Israel tried, Israel never managed to destroy the group through force of arms afterwards. But if Siniora can produce Israel's withdrawal from Shebaa — and even toss Hizballah the credit — he can make Nasrallah an offer to disarm that he cannot really refuse.

That's not to say he won't try. With the encouragement of Syria and Iran, Nasrallah may even use Hizballah's arms against the Lebanese government. But in that case, he would have gone from being hailed as an Arab hero to being exposed as another Arab tyrant, and few will cheer Nasrallah any longer. If that were to happen, Hizballah would truly be disarmed, not by Israel's guns, but by Lebanese public opinion.