Analysis / The alternative to Hezbollah may be occupation
By Zvi Bar'el, Haaretz Correspondent
"So, you don't want peace? You want war all the time?" asked a young Lebanese participant in a fascinating televised discussion Thursday night on Lebanon's LBC station. She was addressing a group of young men, some with shaved heads and short beards, dressed in the latest fashions and uttering nationalist slogans. She seemed to stand no chance. Only two of those men identified themselves as Hezbollah supporters; the rest, both Muslims and Christians, proclaimed the "need for unity."
A poll on Thursday confirmed what was apparent during the television discussion: Some 96 percent of Shiites expressed support for the abduction of the Israeli soldiers, as did 73 percent of Sunnis, 54 percent of Christians and 40 percent of Druze. Most of the participants in the poll felt that Israel will not be able to defeat Hezbollah.
This public opinion is no secret to the Lebanese government, which, during the Rome Conference on Wednesday, realized that it must return home and improve its offer if it wants to obtain a cease-fire. Therefore, the meetings held on Thursday between the Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, Hezbollah and members of the largest blocs in the government were meant to shape a political agreement.
The characteristics of this agreement are beginning to take shape. They include an immediate cease-fire, an Israeli withdrawal from Shaba Farms, a map of Israeli mine fields left in southern Lebanon following the May 2000 withdrawal, an exchange of prisoners, and implementation of the Taif Agreement of 1989, which reiterates the 1949 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Lebanon. The proposal will also include the imposition of Lebanese sovereignty throughout the country, including the border area with Israel.
What the various Lebanese factions have not yet agreed on is the order in which all this will happen, or how the demilitarized area in southern Lebanon will be guaranteed. Furthermore, there is no unified view on the deployment of a multinational force in this area.
Naim Qassem, the deputy of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, said in an article published in Al-Nahar on Thursday that the group will consider it a victory if Lebanon does not become an American bridgehead in the Middle East. This does not reflect merely an ideological aspiration, but a real opposition to the deployment of a NATO force controlled by the United States in southern Lebanon. As for disarmament, if at all, Hezbollah would like to leave this issue to domestic discussions between the group and the government, without any external interference or dictates.
The question now is whether it will be possible to obtain a declaration of intent from Israel and the United States. In short, will Israel agree, in advance, to withdraw from Shaba Farms, if Syria transfers an official document confirming it to be Lebanese, and if the Lebanese army deploys there in place of the Israel Defense Forces? Will Israel agree to negotiations with the government of Lebanon, and not Hezbollah, over an exchange of prisoners? These two issues are directly relevant to the way the results of this war will be viewed, because any declarations of intent on these points will be considered Hezbollah achievements.
On the other hand, if Israel decides that it can register achievements without cooperating with the Lebanese government - that is, without allowing Hezbollah any gains - it may find itself faced with Lebanese unity of the kind that it experienced during its years of occupation. In that case, Israel might find itself caught in a situation similar to the one it has faced in the territories since it chose to give up its partner: a direct, long-term occupation.