Saniora and the dreaded Israeli hug

A possible deal with Israel could very well lead to his political and physical undoing.

Saniora 224.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
Saniora 224.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
For a fleeting moment at Ehud Olmert's press conference in Jerusalem with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday, one could hear the hopeful flutter of a Menachem Begin-Anwar Sadat moment in the making. "I would like to emphasize that Israel has no conflict with the people or government of Lebanon," Olmert said. "We certainly hope that conditions will change rapidly in order to allow direct contact between the government of Israel and government of Lebanon in order to hopefully soon reach an agreement between the two countries." In November 1977, Begin formally set the peace process in motion with an invitation to Sadat to come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset. Sadat accepted. Hope that something may be afoot with Lebanon was strengthened some three hours after Olmert's comments when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni picked up the same theme. Calling for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, Livni said, "I hope that at the end of this process we can achieve a comprehensive peace with Lebanon." Annan himself got swept up in the feel-good feeling, saying that full implementation of 1701 would give a firm basis to moving forward and "settle the differences between Israel and Lebanon once and for all, and establish a durable peace between the two of them so we don't go through the explosive situation we've seen in the past and we saw the last few weeks as well." But then Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora held a press conference of his own and - splat - squashed all hopes. "Lebanon will be the last Arab country that would sign a peace agreement with Israel," he promised. "Let it be clear, we are not seeking any agreement until there is just and comprehensive peace based on the Arab initiative." Saniora, it seems, is no Sadat. Or, perhaps, maybe he remembers all too well that Sadat was gunned down by Islamic radicals a few years after signing a peace accord. But Saniora need not even cast his gaze so far a field. All he has to do is look at his country's own history, and the assassination in 1982 of Bashir Gemayal, who Israel had hoped would also sign a peace agreement. One need not be blessed with an abundance of diplomatic acumen to realize that the last thing Saniora needs right now is an Israeli bear hug. Saniora needs, instead, to worry about his public image, and if he wants to retain credibility in his country and the Arab world - and also merit a length of days - then he does not want to be seen as an American or Israeli puppet. The last thing he needs is for Hizbullah to jump on words about a possible deal, or even contacts, with Israel, to cast him in the role of Israel stooge, something that could very well lead to his political and physical undoing. Then why did Olmert and Livni make their statements? These statements left some with the feeling that something was going on behind the scenes, that there was some back channel action that would be unveiled in the near future and produce from the hat an Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement. According to senior Israeli diplomatic officials, there is no back channel action with Lebanon, and there is no direct contact between the Israeli and Lebanese governments. Indeed, even military coordination between the armies of the two countries that will be necessary to facilitate the deployment of the Lebanese army - and withdrawal of Israeli forces - in the south, is being done through UN channels. But their words, said as they were in the presence of Annan, were meant to send the world a message that Israel has nothing against Lebanon, and indeed seeks peace with Lebanon. It is "positive spin" for the international community. The spin is for internal consumption as well. The prospect that the war could lead to some kind of peace agreement with Lebanon, just as the Yom Kippur War gave birth to the peace agreement with Egypt, would do much to take some of the edge off the public criticism of the war. But, as Saniora made brutally clear, if Olmert were looking for salvation from his internal political problems, he would do better to look elsewhere.