'Interesting' to 'Feasible'

Fouad Siniora is a veteran expert in conducting business and political negotiations, and he knew his offer to deploy the Lebanese Army in the south of the country was only an opening bid - the sort that needs more work to become a business proposal. Therefore, fears that the diplomatic effort is on the verge of collapse are premature, because the novelty of his offer lies not only in the revolution it generated in Lebanon by Hezbollah agreeing to the deployment of the army in "its" territory for the first time. Siniora's offer also rescued the dispute from the internal Lebanese arena, and even the Arab arena, and made it international. Thus, from a situation in which the American-French draft resolution was the only proposal on the market, Siniora managed to drive a wedge between France (and perhaps Russia) and the United States. These are already divided in their positions regarding Siniora's offer, and the negotiations are now between two countries with veto power in the Security Council.

Consequently, if before his proposal Lebanon's position was insignificant and only Israel's position practically determined the outline of the American-French proposal, now no side can ignore the Lebanese stance, because it is backed by France and Russia. Nor is it any small thing to watch Lebanon manage to take a position for the first time that is no longer dependent on Syrian consent, and which even threatens Syrian interests.

Herein also lies the additional temptation in Siniora's offer for whoever aspires to see an independent Lebanon that no longer needs to be coordinated with Damascus. Except that now Siniora has to go from a theoretical "interesting" offer, as Olmert put it, to implementation, a stage that calls upon him to obtain further concessions from Hezbollah, such as a willingness to withdraw its military forces beyond the Litani River, or at least a declaration of intention.

Nasrallah's television "conversation" with viewers yesterday provides public acknowledgment of his consent to the troop deployment, but it cannot come in place of guarantees. It is clear to everyone that the Lebanese Army is incapable of engaging Hezbollah troops. Even if it had the necessary military might together with multinational forces, Siniora's government would not order the army to fight Hezbollah for fear of civil war breaking out again.

The solution may be a graduated timetable, similar to the Road Map proposed for Israel and the Palestinians, in which the implementation of each stage would be a confidence-building step toward the next one. These stages could begin with an immediate cease-fire, which Lebanon and France want, followed by the deployment of a multinational force, Israel's withdrawal and the immediate deployment of the Lebanese Army.

Creating such a road map was the focus of discussions yesterday between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, David Welch, and Siniora in Beirut; and between Jacques Chirac and Saad Hariri in Paris.