Earlier this week, the chances of achieving a workable cease-fire in the current Middle East crisis seemed about as dim as the Lebanese government’s prospects for staying in power. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who came to office last year with American support, looked as if he had been hung out to dry by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she refused to push Israel for an immediate cease-fire. Instead, she repeated her calls that Hizballah be disarmed first, something that the Lebanese government — which has trouble making its citizens pay their income tax and electricity bills — could never do on its own. Siniora looked powerless, and his already fragile government seemed one step closer to collapse.
But now Siniora suddenly stands at the head of a united Lebanese cabinet — which includes Hizballah — with the power to negotiate for a deal that could include the disarmament of Hizballah and the restoration of Lebanese government control over all its territory. “There is total unity about a cease-fire and a package deal,” Ahmad Fat Fat, Lebanon’s Minister of the Interiorm told TIME. “We need a cease-fire and we need it immediately. But we also need a package deal so we don’t have to return to war in a few weeks or a few months.”
Such a deal, according to Lebanese officials, would include negotiations on all the outstanding grievances between Lebanon and Israel: the status of land such as Sheba Farms, which is still occupied by Israel and claimed by Lebanon; an exchange of prisoners; the deployment of the Lebanese army as well as an international force to the south and the disarmament of Hizballah; maps of where Israel has laid land mines in Lebanon; and an end to Israeli violations of Lebanese territorial waters and airspace.
“The package they propose has all the elements to reach a sustainable peace — the absence of war — between Lebanon and the entity of Israel,” said Ali Hamadan, a spokesman for Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and the leader of the Amal Movement. Since most of Hizballah’s leaders are in hiding, Amal — Lebanon’s second largest Shia party — has been negotiating on Hizballah’s behalf. “Some of the components may need adjusting, but there is nothing sacred as long as it is based on liberating the land and a free Lebanon.”
So what has put Siniora’s government in the position to make a potential breakthrough in diplomacy? In the view of the Lebanese, it’s that U.S. has moved toward their position that all of the disagreements between Israel and Lebanon should be open for negotiation. “The discussions with the U.S. have been useful because they solved some of the illusions that you simply send a force and you reach a solution, ” Dr. Mohamad Chatah, a senior advisor to Siniora, told TIME. “Any international force has to be part of a political framework that is accepted by all. Now the U.S. has agreed to this concept and no one is talking about sending NATO forces to impose and to disarm.”
Many observers agree with Chatah that the principal reason the Lebanese government is having success getting the U.S. to listen is that the Israelis are having difficulty disarming Hizballah by force. After 16 days of fighting, the Israeli army is still bogged down in fierce battles just a few miles from the border. “If Israel is not able to win a war and create peace that way then why should anyone expect a multinational force to do so?” asked Chatah. “We have a long history of multinational forces coming and being part of the problem. We need a solution that ends this state of intermittent war. I must say the U.S. has moved a great deal. I think the Americans are discussing everything” in the package deal.
From the U.S. point of view, helping to build up Siniora’s regime is one of the key priorities of any current Middle East diplomacy. As a Rice aide says, “This is not a Hizballah-centric policy. This is a Lebanon-central-government-centric policy”. Or, as Rice herself put it while traveling with reporters Saturday to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, “The most important thing that this does for the process is that it shows a Lebanese government that is functioning as a Lebanese government.”
How much both Hizballah, the U.S. and Israel will actually embrace the Lebanese proposal is still unclear. One element that the U.S. would likely insist on as part of any package deal is the creation of a buffer zone in South Lebanon near the Israeli border, and Rice and other foreign ministers plan to meet in New York City in the next few days to finalize plans for assembling an international force of 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers. Still, it’s not at all certain that the U.S. and Israel will support the notion of a fully comprehensive package deal that would cover all outstanding issues between Israel and Lebanon — rather than just the most pressing matters at hand.
“I’m now going into some fairly intense, I expect, not easy, give and take with officials in Israel,” Rice said. “These are really hard and emotional decisions for both sides under extreme pressure in a difficult set of circumstances, so I expect the discussions to be difficult.”
For their part, neither Hizballah nor Israel seems close to laying down their arms. Israel did pull back its troops Saturday from the Lebanese border town and Hizballah stronghold of Bint Jbeil after several days of fierce fighting, claiming that it had completed its mission. But it also continued to bombard bridges and houses in Southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, in a speech televised on his militant group’s own TV station, Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah hailed the Israeli withdrawal as a victory for his organization. And, only a day after Hizballah had fired a long-range missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Nasrallah threatened to extend the fight deeper inside Israel.
Although the Lebanese government is talking about a cease-fire agreement, officials caution against interpreting that as a peace agreement and recognition of Israel. Instead they speak of updating the armistice agreement the two countries signed in 1949, which never mentions the word “Israel,” simply Palestine. True peace with Israel would only come as part of a regional peace agreement that settles the Palestinian question, especially since some 400,000 displaced Palestinians live in Lebanon, according to the Lebanese. But for the moment, the Lebanese government, as well as the international community, will take any peace it can get.
—With reporting by Elaine Shannon