Lebanon skeptical of PM's call for talks

MPs: Outstanding issues should be resolved according to existing UN resolutions, not peace talks.

michel suleiman 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
michel suleiman 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Lebanon appears to be paying little attention to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's calls this week to discuss the issue of Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) in direct negotiations. Not only are many Lebanese officials skeptical that the embattled prime minister's overtures are sincere, they also say they see little reason to engage in bilateral talks with Israel. The outstanding issues of Shaba Farms and Lebanese prisoners, they argue, can and should be resolved through an existing United Nations resolution rather than in the framework of peace talks. "The Israeli government knows that the last Arab country that will sign peace [with Israel] will be Lebanon," a parliament member from the ruling March 14th party, who asked not to be identified, said on Thursday. "Before Lebanon, we have to see all the Arab countries doing it. We don't trust in this kind of separate peace between Israel and Arab countries." A large proportion of the Lebanese population, he said, was convinced that peace with Israel was not possible without first resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Cairo had made a mistake in 1979 by signing a peace agreement with Israel without such a comprehensive regional agreement, as Egypt had since suffered from extremism and unrest both domestically and from the Gaza Strip, the lawmaker said. Lebanon was particularly concerned about the approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendents who were living in camps there, the legislator said, and his country was unable to absorb them. Lebanon's position has long been that it would enter into a peace agreement with Israel only in the framework of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Many argue that UN Security Council Resolution 1701 - which aimed to resolve the Second Lebanon War - is the only mechanism needed to resolve the outstanding issues of the Shaba Farms and the Lebanese prisoners. "I think the official line is that any peace process is to be put in the context of the Arab's League initiative, taken in Beirut in 2002," also known as the Arab Peace Initiative, a second parliamentarian said. Rather than engaging in "a peace process," the United States can help resolve the Shaba Farms issue by helping to implement Resolution 1701, he said. Israel captured Mount Dov from the Syria in the Six Day War, but Lebanon claims its 22 square kilometers. The matter, however, did not come up in Lebanon until 2000 - when Hizbullah made it an issue at the time of the IDF's withdrawal from south Lebanon, said Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "Hizbullah and the Syrians felt that their position was weakened by the Israeli withdrawal so the question of Shaba Farms was brought up," Shehadi said. "And the debate came up [in Lebanon] as to whether it was Syrian or Lebanese and why it didn't come up before," and why the farms had never been included in UNIFIL's maps of occupied areas of Lebanon. In fact, there was debate during the Madrid Peace Talks in 1991 as to whether Lebanon should participate, since the talks were based on two UN resolutions that involved swapping land taken in the Six Day War for peace. Lebanon, however, did not consider the Shaba Farms to be occupied Lebanese territory at the time, Shehadi said. While there appears to be no unified stance in Lebanon concerning the prospect of peace between Israel and Lebanon, many are skeptical that Olmert's overtures for negotiations are sincere. "In general, Olmert's call is not taken seriously because he has his hands full with other political and personal issues," American University of Beirut professor Timur Goksel, a former spokesman for UNIFIL, told reporters on Thursday. "Most people think he is playing up to the American and Western opinion" by trying to show peaceful intentions.