By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 12, 2006
BEIRUT, Oct. 11 -- Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora warned Wednesday that Israeli military flights over his country's territory were endangering a nearly two-month-old truce that ended this summer's war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.
Siniora, speaking in an interview, said the overflights were occurring daily. The United Nations, which considers them a violation of the Aug. 14 truce, said it recorded 10 overflights of warplanes and surveillance drones from Oct. 3 to midnight Oct. 9.
"I am willing to accept whatever any other sovereign country would accept for itself. Would they allow it?" Siniora asked at his office in the Serail, the government headquarters. "I mean, would the United States allow flyovers of Russian planes? If they would allow it, I accept it. Why do you expect me to do something more than what 195 countries would accept for themselves?"
Israel has said it will continue overflights of Lebanese territory until U.N. Resolution 1701 is, in its view, implemented fully. It says that would require the return of the two soldiers that Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite group, captured in a cross-border raid on July 12 and an inspection mechanism to ensure that no weapons cross the Syrian border into Lebanon to resupply Hezbollah guerrillas.
The overflights pose a delicate issue for Siniora, whose government has come under pressure from Hezbollah and followers of a powerful Christian politician, Michel Aoun, to resign in favor of a government they deem more representative.
Since 2000, when Israel ended its occupation of southernmost Lebanon, Hezbollah had represented the main armed presence in that region and had contended that the Lebanese army, vastly outgunned by its Israeli equivalent, was too weak to protect the border. After the August cease-fire, the Lebanese army was deployed to the south for the first time in a generation, a move that Siniora has hailed as one of his government's greatest achievements. Hezbollah has warned, however, that it might act if Israeli violations of the truce continue and the Lebanese army and a newly strengthened U.N. force in the area do nothing to end them.
Siniora said that, in time, the army might have to respond to Israel's actions. "It is the duty of our army to defend the country, and this is what it should do," he said.
But the prime minister acknowledged that the dispute would probably have to be resolved diplomatically. "Now we are exhausting all diplomatic channels and means, and this is how it should be done," he said. He added that even when Hezbollah was effectively guarding the border from 2000 to 2006, Israeli overflights were routine but the Shiite militia was largely powerless to stop them.
Siniora's government, which is backed by the United States and European countries, is at the center of a growing polarization in Lebanese politics that sometimes breaks along sectarian lines, sometimes along those of ideology. The tension, often most pronounced between the country's Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities, has left many here gloomy about what lies ahead.
Aoun and, to a lesser extent, Hezbollah have demanded that Siniora's cabinet resign in favor of what they call a "national unity government" that would give them more power. Corruption, rife in Lebanese public life, is one of their biggest complaints. So is what they view as the government's ineffectiveness.
At another level are two views of the war's end: Hezbollah contends its military prowess deprived Israel of a victory; Siniora said the government's diplomacy was responsible for the U.N. resolution that ended the fighting.
If Hezbollah wants "to bring the government down, this is a legitimate objective of the opposition," said Siniora, who assumed his position in July 2005. "But it is a legitimate right of the other side to defend this position and to prove to the other that they are wrong, and that is what we are doing.
"The government," he added, "is not the place for dialogue."