"Impossible" options

Between May 29 and June 19, Lebanon held its first parliamentary elections in 30 years free of Syrian military and intelligence domination. The political alliances leading to the elections were drawn along sectarian and traditional lines. The compromises reached by the different political factions were in contradiction with the spirit of the March 14 Independence Uprising, thereby causing a certain disenchantment among the public. Local observers expressed disappointment and fear lest Lebanese political factions continue to engage in a zero-sum political game.

Recently, the new government, representing most of the victors, presented its program to the parliament. It set as priorities reform of the security apparatus, the initiation of political and economic reform, and respect for all aspects of international legitimacy, but failed to pledge to fulfill the demands of UNSCR 1559 concerning the disarming of militias. There are hopes that the government can draw on political understandings among the parliamentary majority in order to carry out its long-awaited and needed reforms.

In view of broad public dissatisfaction, the government must realize that the current political ills and security breaches are untenable. Nor can it blame the Syrians any longer for its shortcomings or failures. Lebanon no longer has an excuse not to fulfill its obligations and responsibilities toward the international community and, consequently, to implement the various commitments implied by 1559 and by its promises to the Paris Two Economic Forum.

Yet the recent surprise visit to Beirut by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to encourage the Siniora government to pledge to execute 1559, failed to achieve its purpose. Siniora bent under pressure from the Syrian prime minister and the Iranian president, as well as by Shi’ite representatives within his government, and deliberately neglected to mention 1559 in his speech to parliament. In response to this omission, the United States and France expressed their disappointment and again emphasized their expectation that Lebanon would meet its international obligations.

The challenge to the new parliament and government remains how to fulfill Lebanon’s commitments concerning the execution of 1559–a task representing the tip of the iceberg. In his approach to parliament, Prime Minister Siniora has tried to delay confronting the Syrian call to preserve Hizballah’s weapons as "a strategic asset to Syrian security". But this is extremely difficult to reconcile with Lebanon’s need for US and French support to resolve its economic and financial dilemmas.

Lebanon stands at a crossroads. The challenges that confront it are considerable, and success in overcoming them will not be easy to achieve. Besides its internal political and economic hurdles, there are also major problems to be solved with the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Israelis. Building a Lebanese national consensus over the optimal solution for disarming Hizballah remains a critical task.

Facing a precarious security situation after all the bombings and assassinations that have taken place during the past few months, the Lebanese government cannot ignore the arms in the Palestinian camps, which are hideouts for criminals and terrorists. In the past, it was the Syrians who influenced the government to delay taking control over these camps.

Syria, disturbed by its withdrawal from Lebanon, by the outcome of the elections, and by the hostile political environment that now dominates the Lebanese scene, may continue trying to punish the Lebanese people and destabilize the country. Siniora’s recent visit to Damascus was devoted to solving the border clampdown, but Syria may not agree to help without trying to weaken the Lebanese drive toward sovereignty.

In addition, tensions along the southern border are expected to rise during the Israeli evacuation of Gaza. During his recent visit to France, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed Israel’s urgent need to see Lebanon fully implementing 1559 and deploying the Lebanese Army along the border. The situation may become volatile, presenting the risk of Israeli retaliation against vital Lebanese infrastructure to "force" action to disarm Hizballah.

It will only be possible for the new parliament and government to tackle the above-outlined "impossible" options if the Lebanese are able to articulate a set of national priorities that seek to enhance security and advance political and economic reform. They must also take steps to provide a cohesive approach to the international community that stands ready to help them. It is time for the Lebanese to transcend their divisions and define the goals that will guide the way toward the birth of a stable, secular, and sovereign country.