Lebanon's Siniora: "We Don't Want to Be a Battlefield"

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Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Patrick Baz / AFP / Getty

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Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a mild-mannered former banker, has scarcely had a moment's peace since he took up his office in the wake of the Cedar Revolution in 2005. Though the protests triggered by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri led to a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the country's troubles have continued unabated. Siniora had to endure last summer's devastating war in Lebanon between Israel and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shi'a Muslim Hizballah group. Soon after the hostilities ended, Hizballah and its allies staged massive protests demanding that Siniora's government resign. Political killings are commonplace, including the murder of one of Siniora's ministers. In an interview with TIME's Scott MacLeod and Nicholas Blanford, the Prime Minister explained how and why he has stood his ground.


TIME: What is your problem in Lebanon?

SINIORA: Go back in time about two years when the decision was made by the Syrians in order to extend the term of the president [Emile Lahoud] in spite of, let's say, the general conviction of the Lebanese that there shouldn't be any extension. Because this is contrary to the constitution. That led to further agitation in Lebanon that ultimately led to the assassination of [former Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri. This created a tsunami in the country that led to the withdrawal of the Syrian troops.


So what's the problem today?

This new government came in. We made every effort to deal with the pertinent issues and the issues brought about by the assassination of Hariri. The international tribunal [to investigate the assassination] is one of the basic objectives of this government. Why? Because following the assassination of Hariri, there have been other assassinations. This follows assassinations during the past 30 years, leaders of thought, editors, politicians, clergymen, the grand mufti, the Druze mufti. That's why one should insist on the international tribunal. Not only to get to know who committed these crimes, but as well to protect democracy in this country. It is not a vendetta. It is a duty to the Lebanese people.


But Hizballah disagreed?

The government took a decision to approve the international tribunal. There was a withdrawal of the members of the cabinet belonging to Hizballah and Amal [another militant Shi'a party]. In July and August, the Israelis invaded Lebanon on the pretext that Hizballah crossed the blue line. The irony here is that when Israel came to Lebanon in 1982, the justification was they wanted to finish the PLO. What actually happened is that they did not finish the PLO. But they laid the seeds for the creation of Hizballah.


Did last summer's war change the situation?

We worked all together to fight the Israelis. All of a sudden, at the end of the hostilities, we started to hear that because of the intensity of the nuclear issue in Iran, that the Iranians wanted to defeat the United States in Lebanon. Immediately after that, we started hearing about calls for a national unity government, that this government is the government of the American ambassador. Now we are traitors and collaborators with the Americans. This, all in preparation for stopping the international tribunal.


So Iran is behind this?

What's going on is a double objective. You've got the Iranian nuclear issue and the desire of the Iranian regime to expand its authority in Lebanon and in the region. You have the desire of the Iranians to establish, I wouldn't say a satellite state, but something of that sort. And you've got the Syrians. They are not shy about [opposing] the international tribunal. What is happening in Lebanon is because of turbulence coming from the outside, using Lebanese.


How can you deal with that?

We have an interest in establishing good relations on the basis of mutual respect; i.e., Syria has to get used to the idea that Lebanon is an independent and sovereign country. We don't want to be a battlefield. We have had enough. Lebanese don't want to go back to where the affairs of the country are being ruled by an officer in the army, or by other countries. Lebanon cannot afford to be allying itself with one group of countries against other groups. We want to be good with everybody. We don't have any enemies, except Israel. We are ready to go to peace [with Israel] only when all the other Arab countries go to peace.


Isn't Lebanon doomed to be a regional battlefield?

For the state to be in full control, we have to take away the reasons or the excuses that are being put forward for the continuation of [Hizballah's] weapons outside the control of the central government. Which is the continuation of the occupation. We are after a real cure, which is the end of the occupation. I have to arrange for the liberation of the Shebaa Farms [disputed territory occupied by the Israelis]. You will tell me, Shebaa farms, is it that important? It is Lebanese land and they should withdraw from it. It is as if they are creating always a bleeding wound, that is ready to commence bleeding any time you irritate it.


So if Israel withdraws from Shebaa Farms, you can disarm Hizballah?

The withdrawal of the arms of Hizballah is something that has to be done through negotiation and not through force. These are our countrymen. These people at one time were fighting for the liberation of the occupied territory. They fought bravely defending Lebanon last July and August. I bow my head for their sacrifices. We have to arrange for the liberation [of Shebaa Farms]. They have to understand at the end of the day that no country can continue if there is no real central state and the weapons are the monopoly of the state. We have grievances and we have to find a solution to it. I cannot go and ask Hizballah to surrender their arms while my country is still occupied.


What are you doing to get Israel to withdraw?

We came up with a very creative idea for Israel to withdraw and put it under the custodianship of the United Nations. There isn't any official in the world who hasn't had his ear punched by my seeing him or calling him and mentioning Shebaa Farms. I talked to President Bush about it, and Secretary Rice, and Vice President Cheney. They are showing readiness and this is the way I will really test the support [for] the government. They express a great deal of appreciation for what I'm saying. I want pressure on the Israelis to withdraw. They say they are doing [that], but I want to see results. We want the United States to exert further efforts in achieving the withdrawal of the Israelis from the Shebaa Farms.


Do they say they agree with your proposal for Israel to leave Shebaa Farms?

That bluntly? I did not hear that. But if I were understanding the whole Middle Eastern problem properly from the angle of American interests, I would put every effort to move forward to solve the problem of Lebanon and go ahead with the peace process.


But Hizballah suggests even if Israel withdraws, they need to keep their weapons to defend Lebanon.

At the end of the day, the Lebanese want to live. And live decently. They can't continue in a continuous war. If it is true that Lebanon is threatened by Israel, something can be done between the Lebanese army and the resistance to enhance the capacities of the Lebanese army. You cannot continue having two armies within the same country reporting to different leaderships.


Does U.S. support help you, or make you look like an American puppet?

I'm a pragmatic man. I want the interests of my country. Not to sacrifice any of our rights. In real life, there is nothing black and white. I don't believe in rhetoric and attacks. I want to deal with the Americans, yes. I know there can't be a real solution if we don't engage with the Americans. But not at the expense of my principles, my country and our pride.


Did it hurt your pride when the U.S. refused to call for a cease-fire in the war in Lebanon?

When we were negotiating, I said these are my conditions. Even if they shatter this palace, I am not going to change. When [Rice] was in Israel and planning to come here following the massacre in Qana, I told her, "I am not ready to receive you."


Are you at an impasse now?

The country is at an impasse, yes. But that doesn't mean our government is not constitutional. It is working, but not with full efficiency. If I didn't have the support of the parliament or the population, I wouldn't stay in my position one second. I am a man of principles, not a man looking for positions. It is my duty to continue extending a hand to them [the opposition]. They have to be swayed to our side. We are a government defending democracy, independence, and we are unique in this part of the world in terms of moderation, openness, toleration. This country has a high degree of perseverance, ingenuity and creativity.


Is Lebanon's democracy movement up against a polarization and civil war?

This situation has rendered many people less tolerant. But I strongly believe that there is no other option for Lebanese but to understand that they have to live together. We have the benefit of past experience, which was a deadly experience. There is no possibility of somebody coming out victorious and somebody vanquished. We have to end up sitting together and finding ways to compromise so the country is victorious. No civil war. I don't believe that.


Do you sense Hizballah absorbed that message?

I think many are grasping that conclusion. They are finding out that this is not going to lead them anywhere.


Is your government going to survive?

Yes. No doubt.


Were you worried about the protests outside your office here in the Grand Serail?

I have never had that degree of serenity in my life. Despite the risks, which I am aware of, don't think at all that I am troubled. I go to bed, and in two minutes I am asleep. I am a man who has gre

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