Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Sunday he is seeking amendments to a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would combine the dispatch of United Nations and Lebanese army peacekeepers with the immediate pullout of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.
Siniora, in an interview, said his suggestions were an attempt to meet the interests of Israel as well as Lebanon and its Hezbollah movement in seeking an end to the fighting that has engulfed Lebanon and Israel for 26 days. The resolution proposed by the United States and France, he said, is "impractical" because it would leave Israeli occupation troops and Hezbollah militiamen face to face in the border hills, virtually certain to keep on fighting.
He said Lebanon stands ready to deploy 15,000 soldiers and accept a 2,000-member international force led by the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, until a political settlement can be worked out and a more permanent international peacekeeping force can be assembled and deployed to Lebanon.
"And this can be done quickly," he said.
UNIFIL has been stationed in southern Lebanon since the Israeli army invaded a swath of villages in 1978. Having Lebanese soldiers join the UNIFIL force would enable Lebanese government forces to be in charge of the border zone south of the Litani River for the first time since 1978, Siniora noted.
"This is a Lebanese objective and it suits the Israelis' objectives as well," he added.
Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim movement, and other Shiite Lebanese politicians have taken issue with the draft resolution because it makes no mention of an immediate Israeli withdrawal.
"How can you guarantee you are not going to have a confrontation?" Siniora asked.
Government ministers from Hezbollah insisted that they would abide by the proposed U.N. resolution only if no Israeli soldier remained on Lebanese soil, including the disputed Shebaa Farms area that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war but is claimed in Beirut as Lebanese territory.
‘Full withdrawal’ of Israelis
"Israelis are interested in having a sort of area that does not have any weapons of Hezbollah and they want an international force," Siniora said. "What the Lebanese expect is a full withdrawal of all the Israelis from occupied Lebanese territory and to leave Shebaa Farms."
Siniora, an economist and banker by training, took over the Lebanese government in June 2005 following the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February and the withdrawal two months later of Syria's 40,000 troops from Lebanon, after mass protests.
He said he had spoken with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French officials over the weekend to impart details of the amendments sought by Lebanon. Jeffrey D. Feltman, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, met with officials twice Sunday in the Serail, the graceful, Ottoman-style building that houses the prime minister's office, to listen to clarifications of the Lebanese ideas.
"We are trying to put into the resolution terms over which there is already a consensus in Lebanon," Siniora said, referring to his seven-point plan approved by Christian and Muslim leaders and the cabinet, including Hezbollah's ministers.
Siniora insisted that the 75,000-member Lebanese army is up to the task of patrolling the border hills, since it has gradually been confiscating weapons from Palestinian groups and seizing al-Qaeda operatives in the country. It recently captured armed Palestinians who were about to launch rockets, he said.
The prime minister, a moderate Sunni Muslim and a longtime friend of Hariri, finds himself at the helm of the first Lebanese cabinet that has included Hezbollah ministers. The Shiite movement established itself after the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions to drive Israeli soldiers out of the country with resistance and guerrilla activity. After Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, Hezbollah remained intact as the country's only armed militia, at Syria's insistence, so there would be a force to directly confront Israel's occupation in the south.
No contact with Nasrallah
The Lebanese government had been approaching the issue of disarming Hezbollah through a "national dialogue." But those efforts were disrupted with the outbreak of hostilities on July 12 when Hezbollah carried out a raid into Israel, seizing two Israeli soldiers and killing eight others.
Asked whether he had been in direct contact with Hezbollah officials or the movement's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, Siniora responded, "Not since July 12."
Siniora's government distanced itself from the Hezbollah raid, saying it had "no knowledge of it and disavowed it." But in speeches made since the death toll in Lebanon rose into the hundreds, Siniora has referred to Nasrallah in deferential terms, in an apparent effort not to alienate his massive following in Lebanon's Shiite community, and has saluted Hezbollah fighters for defending their land in the face of invading troops.
Handling such a crisis that was not of his making, Siniora conceded, is an "unpleasant experience."
"Yet we have to live together to preserve this unique experience of diversity," he said. "We are trying to lead inch by inch. We have more Lebanese authority now than we ever had, which makes me patient. Every day since I took over we have been gaining more ground for the Lebanese state. People have come out and said out loud what they did not dare whisper concerning the Syrians, the Palestinians and Hezbollah."
Reminded that the Lebanese state has not really controlled the country since civil war broke out in 1975, he argued: "Have you ever risen early to watch the sunrise? There is nothing called a direct shift from darkness to complete brightness. But I really think we are addressing all the right issues."