Simple peace equation that doesn't add up

Lebanon's Prime Minister tells Robert Fisk he will disarm Hizbollah in exchange for Israeli withdrawal

Sitting on the lawn of Rafiq Hariri's Beirut mansion, it all sounded so simple. If Bibi Netanyahu orders Israeli occupation soldiers out of southern Lebanon, the Hizbollah can be disarmed. "If Mr Netanyahu wants to change his image and the impression he gave during the election campaign, he will withdraw from Lebanon with no conditions," the Lebanese Prime Minister said, the equation so mathematical as it floated over the perfectly cut lawn. "Then Lebanon will be able to assure security in the south."

If only it was that easy. What the apparently moderate Shimon Peres couldn't do, the right-wing Mr Netanyahu might do. Was this not the Begin syndrome again, the idea that the more hawkish the Israelis, the easier they will find it to make concessions to the Arabs?

But Mr Hariri is shrewder than that and, sitting in his garden chair, the hammering of reconstruction banging away behind the trees in west Beirut, he seemed to have few illusions.

"From our side, we don't differentiate between Peres and Netanyahu - and you shouldn't forget that a few weeks ago, it was Peres who was bombing civilians in Lebanon ... I didn't believe at all that Peres would win. I told everyone who asked me that it was 50/50." Like most Middle East leaders, Mr Hariri watched the election on television and he watched the Peres performance closely. "The way he was acting during the election campaign made me think it would be very difficult for him to win. It may be the [April] war in Lebanon played a role [in Peres's defeat]. He looked like he was inconsistent in his ideas on peace. He talked about peace and he made war. He killed civilians and he went to Paris and talked about tolerance. I think many Israelis were confused. They heard Peres talking about peace and watched him make war. On the other hand, they saw another man who was young and new ... I saw on TV many normal Israeli people are afraid of the future, afraid of how Israel will be governed and the future of the peace process. I saw young and middle-aged people talking about uncertainty."

Doubt is not something Mr Hariri is prepared to contemplate about Lebanon, a sentiment which may not be shared by all the Lebanese. While living in the nearest to a Western-style democracy that exists in the Arab world, the Lebanese know that their government must never contradict Syria and that Syria's favourites sit in cabinet with Mr Hariri. They fear that Israel may soon strike again at Lebanon and that Syria's 22,000 troops in the country will no more be able to protect them next time than they could in April. But the billionaire Prime Minister, whose personal investment in Lebanon's post-civil war reconstruction includes a 10-per-cent shareholding in the company rebuilding Beirut's city centre, believes Lebanon has been innoculated against Israeli bombardments.

"The last [Israeli] aggression showed that Lebanon is immune enough to function normally after 16 days of bombardment ... We are a peaceful country. We are not trying to be militarily strong like Israel. We are trying to rebuild, to develop our country, to build schools and hospitals."

Nations can rebuild even when they are partly occupied, Mr Hariri said. "Part of Syria has been occupied since 1967 and they have a development programme. Jordan and Egypt had part of their countries occupied for many years. But that doesn't mean life stopped. Germany was divided until a few years ago and from the point of view of the west Germans, a big part of it was occupied. But they still continued developing their country."

But then, what has happened to the 27 April ceasefire? Had not four Israeli soldiers been killed since the election? Had not the Israelis bombed a Hizbollah base near Baalbek?

"The attack by the resistance (sic) against Israeli soldiers in the occupied territory [of Lebanon] is not a violation of the April understanding. But what the Israeli armed forces did in Baalbek ... was a violation - they chose a target very far from the battlefield."

The Americans have argued that if Hizbollah were disarmed, Israel would leave Lebanon alone. Mr Hariri sits forward with impatience. "Are they going to leave Lebanon? Why are they occupying part of our country in the first place? I don't know why. Maybe they want to use this occupation in the peace negotiations ... It all depends on Israel. If Mr Netanyahu decides to withdraw from Lebanon and Syria, the peace can take place at any time."

But Mr Netanyahu has stated he will not withdraw from the Golan Heights. "So it means he doesn't want peace," Mr Hariri responds bleakly. "No peace will take place without a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights."

So what of President Bill Clinton who failed to condemn the civilian slaughter in Lebanon last April, who supported Israel's claim that the bloodbath was provoked by Hizbollah? Mr Hariri chooses his words carefully. "The United States is an essential part of the peace process ... we would like to see the US play the role of an honest broker. If it does this, peace can be achieved." He concluded: "He should have condemned the massacre at Qana, because nobody can justify the massacre of innocents."

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