Siniora the man in the middle between Hezbollah and Israel

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora evoked little sympathy from Israeli leaders when he wept on Monday over the rampant devastation caused by Israel's nearly month-old military onslaught in his country.

Mr Siniora, a former banker and finance minister who a year ago became the head of the first cabinet formed after Syria's withdrawal from the country, repeatedly wiped away tears as he described to Arab foreign ministers convening in Beirut how Israeli bombings had 'taken our country back decades'.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, speaking in the Knesset the following day, derided Mr Siniora, 63, for contributing to the eruption of the war by pursuing what she depicted as a weak policy of trying to persuade Hezbollah to disarm through 'national dialogue' rather than confronting the movement.

'I also saw Siniora's tears yesterday and we all cry for our dead. But this is indeed the place to tell him to dry his tears and start taking action in order to create a better future, a more normal future, first and foremost for the citizens over whom he is crying,' she said.

However, despite being in the unenviable position of being squeezed tight between Israel and Hezbollah, Mr Siniora has proven this week that he is an initiator rather than a reactor.

Hours after his tearful speech, Mr Siniora gained an unprecedented agreement by Hezbollah to his initiative to send 15,000 Lebanese army troops to stand between Israel and Hezbollah, should a ceasefire take hold and Israeli troops withdraw from the border. Israel conceded the proposal was an advance over past policy, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert terming it 'interesting'.

This did not, however, prevent the Israeli government from deciding the next day on an all-out invasion that would capture territory to the Litani River, 18km north of the Israeli border.

Israel said on Thursday it was holding back from the incursion - the stated goal of which is to halt relentless Hezbollah rocket attacks - to give diplomacy a last chance. Israel's Peace Now movement called on the government to embrace the Siniora initiative.

The Olmert government has placed Mr Siniora at the centre of a fateful calculation - or miscalculation - that is underpinning its war effort in Lebanon.

It is that if Israel weakens Hezbollah enough militarily, harms its prestige and gets Lebanese public opinion to blame its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, for triggering all the destruction by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers last month, Mr Siniora will emerge strengthened in relation to the Iranian and Syrian-backed Shi'ite fundamentalist movement.

With international backing, Mr Siniora will then be able to force Hezbollah to disarm, assert the Lebanese government's sovereignty over all the country, and preside over a Lebanon firmly in the pro-US camp whose policies accord with Israeli security interests.

'The hope is that Hezbollah can be weakened to such a point that other Lebanese forces can be bolder, that Siniora can exercise authority,' says Israel Democracy Institute analyst Uri Dromi.

However, critics of the approach warn that Israel's devastating military campaign - which has left nearly 1,000 Lebanese dead, mostly civilians - actually strengthens Hezbollah's popularity and undermines Mr Siniora by reinforcing the argument that Hezbollah must keep its weapons to defend Lebanon from Israeli aggression.

More than 100 Israelis have been killed, including soldiers in battle and civilians by Hezbollah rockets.

Occupying centre stage is something relatively new to Mr Siniora, though he is hardly a political novice.

Most of his recent career was spent in the shadow of old friend Rafik Hariri, the billionaire business magnate central to Lebanon's post civil-war reconstruction. Hariri served as prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and from 2000 to 2004, with Mr Siniora holding the post of finance minister throughout that period.

Like Hariri, Mr Siniora is a Sunni Muslim who comes from the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon. He earned a master's degree in business administration at the American University in Beirut.

Mr Siniora served in a senior position in the Central Bank of Lebanon from 1977 to 1982. He was first employed by Hariri in 1982, and went on to hold a variety of banking and finance posts in the Hariri business empire.

As prime minister, Mr Siniora represents the parliamentary majority that gained election last year after Hariri's assassination on an anti-Syrian platform. Hariri's son, Saad - who favoured focusing on business and playing a behind-the-scenes role rather than taking on his father's old job - persuaded Mr Siniora to head the government.

'Under normal circumstances Siniora's popularity is strong because he has the mantle of Hariri,' says Naim Shehadi, a Lebanon specialist at London's Chatham House think-tank.

'In this war, he is perceived as an ally of the United States. In the division in Lebanon between Hezbollah and other Syrian allies in the Syrian-Iranian camp and the Saudi-American camp, Siniora is in the Saudi-American camp. His political fate is tied to that.'

Zvi Barel, Arab affairs analyst at Israel's Haaretz newspaper, says Mr Siniora has proven adroit at keeping his diverse cabinet together despite crises.

'His strength is as a negotiator, not charisma,' Mr Barel says.

But the big question hovering over Mr Siniora's future concerns Washington. Despite initially pointing to the Siniora government as a shining example of the emergence of democracy in the region, the Bush administration has during the war placed Israeli prerogatives over those of the Lebanese premier.

While Mr Siniora is insisting that any ceasefire must come with a full Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Washington has backed Israel's position that the Israeli army should remain in place until international forces arrive in order to prevent a vacuum that could be exploited by Hezbollah.

In Mr Shehadi's view, Mr Siniora will continue to have no option other than to attempt to disarm Hezbollah through political agreement, not military force. As part of that, he has included and kept Hezbollah ministers in his cabinet. Mr Shehadi notes that Shi'ites represent 40 per cent of the Lebanese population, the largest single group in the country.

'You'll have a civil war [with a forced disarmament],' he says. 'If Israel, in over three weeks of a brutal military campaign couldn't disarm Hezbollah, then certainly the Lebanese army can't.'

Since taking office, Mr Siniora has sought to remove Hezbollah's justifications for continuing to hold arms by urging world leaders including President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to push for Israel to withdraw from the Shebaa farms border area.

Hezbollah has said the Israeli presence is a continuation of occupation of Lebanese territory, and now says it will not agree to a ceasefire as long as even one Israeli soldier remains in Lebanon.

In the internal debate, Mr Siniora's argument had been that Hezbollah does not need to have arms because Lebanon can rely on the international community to protect it from Israel.

'The whole argument is now being undermined by the message that Israel does have belligerent intentions and that the government, the UN and Lebanon's allies can do nothing to stop it,' Mr Shehadi says.

With the clock ticking on chances of averting further bloodshed, Mr Siniora's initiative offered an alternative. But without US backing, it would prove stillborn.