LEBANON: Condoleeza Rice wants to resolve the Shebaa Farms issue
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice took Beirut by surprise Monday when she formally congratulated the newly elected Lebanese president and gave her blessing to the political era just starting in Lebanon.
Allies of Iran and Syria here tried to play down the influence of the United States. They mostly depicted Rice as a "mediocre" diplomat arriving late to gloss over the "failure of the U.S. policy in Lebanon."
But in the many interpretations to her unscheduled visit, one aspect caught the attention of observers. Rice stressed for the first time resolving the issue of the Shebaa Farms, a small parcel of land regarded by Hezbollah and the Lebanese state as a Lebanese territory still under Israeli occupation.
She told reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that "the United States believes that the time has come to deal with the Shebaa Farms issue ... in accordance with [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 1701." She added that Washington, D.C., was planning to urge U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to "lend his good offices" to end the sovereignty dispute over the Shebaa Farms.
For the last few years, Shebaa has been an element of competition between the Western-backed Lebanese government and Hezbollah. Siniora and his allies pushed for a diplomatic solution whereby Shebaa would come under U.N. control until the border between Lebanon and Syria is drawn. Hezbollah, on the other hand, saw the occupation as a reason to continue its armed struggle against Israel.
The pro-Western-backed majority daily Al-Mustaqbal said that Rice told her allies that the Shebaa farms issue was "a priority to the Bush administration." The newspaper interpreted Rice's remarks as "a U.S. support to the new era and a commitment to help Lebanon face the upcoming challenges."
The pro-Hezbollah daily Assafir, on the other hand, said that Rice was preparing its allies to the need of following the steps of Syria in its peace talks with Israel before regaining the Shebaa farms.
According to the newspaper, Washington's allies in Lebanon pressed Rice to "remove all the alibis that give a legitimacy to Hezbollah's weapons." The newspaper added that Siniora's team was trying to gain ground vis-a-vis Hezbollah before the formation of the new government.
Rice's visit comes after a major agreement in Doha last month brought an end to a drawn-out political crisis in the country and a brief period of violence. The deal, which gave Hezbollah a veto power in the upcoming government, was regarded by observers as a slap in the face for the U.S. policy in the region.
Following her meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Rice recognized that Hezbollah had gained more political power:
"Obviously in any compromise there are concessions, but this was an agreement that I think served the interests of the Lebanese people. And since it served the interests of the Lebanese people, it serves the interests of the United States. We support the democratically elected government of Lebanon. That's who we support."
Rice added that her country still regards Hezbollah as a terrorist organization but would still cooperate with the new "democratically-elected" government.
In a fiery editorial, the English-language newspaper the Daily Star urged the United States to adopt a more balanced policy in Lebanon:
Generally, Washington's approach to Lebanese affairs has been to pick sides regarding internal issues and to ignore Beirut's very real grievances against Israel on external matters. ... America's failure to get its Israeli allies out of the occupied Shebaa Farms was a key factor in the circumstances that led to the 2006 war between this country and the Jewish state. ... Rice can help ... by getting her colleagues back in Washington to recognize that Lebanon is the last place where anyone should try to flog Bush's notorious assertion that people and governments are "either with us or against us." ... She can lean on the Israelis, too, to end their occupation of Lebanese land once and for all.
Despite the recent Doha agreement, political disputes over portfolios are ongoing pending the formation of the new national unity government. Meanwhile, armed clashes between Sunni and Shiite supporters of the two feuding camps continued east of the country in the Bekaa Valley, leading to casualties early this morning, according to some media reports.
-- Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice meets Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Credit: www.state.gov