Siniora's Proposal / Gamble and Warning

With the support of the Arab foreign ministers, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora yesterday sounded both a gamble and a warning to Washington and Jerusalem. The gamble is his proposal to deploy the Lebanese army in the area from the Litani River southward, to the border with Israel, to work alongside UNIFIL; and the warning concerns the break-up of Lebanon, and the possible fall of the Lebanese government beforehand, if the U.S.-French draft proposal for the UN Security Council is not amended.

The deployment of the Lebanese army - or some 15,000 soldiers - is a gamble because Siniora cannot be sure that Hezbollah will allow this force to take up positions or that violent confrontations won't ensue between the Shi'ite movement and the Lebanese soldiers. Siniora is relying on Hezbollah's commitment to support his seven-point plan, which includes imposing Lebanese sovereignty over all of its territory.

The Lebanese prime minister has apparently secured Hezbollah's consent for the move following French intervention.

In theory, Hezbollah will have a hard time opposing the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south of the country because the move is in keeping both with the 1989 Taif Agreement and with a similar clause in UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The Taif Agreement, which is mentioned in the U.S.-French draft resolution, was supported at the time by then Hezbollah secretary-general Abbas Musawi, who was assassinated by Israel in 1992.

If upheld, Siniora's proposal could serve as a turning point also on a strategic level that is of interest to Israel in that it represents a significant challenge to Syria, which has opposed the deployment in the south of the Lebanese army until now. Siniora's proposal offers an answer to Israel's demand that South Lebanon be under Lebanese and not Hezbollah control.

And herein, too, lies the gamble vis-a-vis Hezbollah's acceptance of the proposal. Therefore, Siniora, via the delegation sent to New York yesterday, will also try to convince the Security Council members to include in the resolution Israel's withdrawal from the Shaba Farms, and for the area to handed over to international supervision in the initial stage.

Such a move would be designed to give some sense of victory to Lebanon, and, primarily, to try to neutralize Hezbollah's expected opposition to the deployment.

More importantly, and herein lies the warning in Siniora's statements, if the draft proposal is not amended, Lebanon could slip into political ruin, on top of the economic crisis.

The most threatening scenario from Siniora's point of view is the renewed outbreak of civil war on the backdrop of opposition on the part of some of the political leadership to Lebanon being dragged into a war that is being managed exclusively by Hezbollah.

Siniora is also concerned that any status quo resulting from a resolution that does not include a cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal as a single package will prolong the conflict between the IDF and Hezbollah and afford the latter a standing that would not allow any political power in Lebanon in the future to disarm the movement.

Siniora also appears to be warning that if the "small battles" between the IDF and Hezbollah continue, he may wash his hands of any political efforts and perhaps even resign - leaving Lebanon to the Syrians once again.