Watching every move
Lebanon viewed Israel's military manoeuvre with trepidation this week, but opinion was divided over whether it presaged war, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
All eyes in Lebanon turned south of the border this week, with Israel's large-scale five-day military and civil defence exercise stirring the usual talk about a coming war. The exercise comes at a time of stultifying political crisis in Beirut and speculation about the form of Hizbullah's presumed pending retaliation for the assassination of Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in February, for which the Shia guerrilla group blames Israel.
Hizbullah and Amal, both Shia movements in the opposition, said in a joint statement the exercises -- including simulated air and missile attacks on cities and getting civilians into shelters -- were hostile, no matter what the cause. "The exercises reflect Israel's hidden intention to avenge its defeat during the July War," said the statement issued on Monday, the day after the manoeuvre started. "They also reflect the felt powerlessness that the Israeli military institution is witnessing and constitute an attempt to raise its spirits."
Some local and regional media viewed the manoeuvre as heralding an imminent re-run of the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, in which Israeli bombardment ravaged much of the south and southern suburbs of Beirut. Such fears have been rife, particularly since Mughniyah's assassination, after which Hizbullah Secretary- General Hassan Nasrallah said Israel was welcome to an "open war" if it wanted one. Few military analysts expect retaliation along the lines of a border attack, which would likely spark a devastating response and be extremely unpopular among most Lebanese, expecting instead a response in kind.
Security expert Timur Goksel said the hype around the manoeuvre was unwarranted. "It's just stale Middle East posturing. There's been too much talk about the war so people jumped at this. But you don't start a war like this with a defence exercise. It doesn't make sense," he said.
Only the large-scale mobilisation of the home front was unusual, said Goksel, a lecturer on security at the American University of Beirut and former spokesman for the southern peacekeeping force UNIFIL. "There's not much movement by the military forces; however, in that sense, we've seen much bigger than this before. This is more of a national security manoeuvre."
However, the Israelis are clearly sending a signal to their adversaries over the border, with the expected reply to the Mughniyah killing in mind, he said. "This is an advance message to say 'we are ready'." Mughniyah, who lived a life shrouded in complete secrecy, appears to have been Hizbullah's master tactician for two decades at least and is accused by Washington and other states of masterminding the kidnappings of foreigners during the Civil War and bombings of the French marine base and US Embassy. Nasrallah has praised his role as a leading strategist behind the campaigns against Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in retreat in 2000, and the "Divine Victory" claimed by Hizbullah in the July War.
Syria is investigating his death; however, Lebanese newspaper reports this week said release of the results of the investigation had been delayed, allegedly to avoid embarrassment over the involvement of neighbouring Arab intelligence agencies in the killing, as well as to give Israel no pretext to precipitate any war plans.
On Lebanon's home front, two leaders on opposite sides of the chasm between government and opposition toured Arab capitals this week.
Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora headed off to meet his allies among other leading members of the US-backed axis of so-called moderates, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, receiving the expected warm welcome. All three leaders accuse Syria of blocking a deal in Lebanon through its alliance with Hizbullah and Amal, and boycotted the Arab summit in Damascus at the end of March in protest.
Al-Siniora reiterated a call for an Arab foreign ministers' summit after talks with Arab League chief Amr Moussa in Cairo, also rebuffing Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri's call for an internal dialogue. Two of Al-Siniora's key Arab backers, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak met in Sharm El-Sheikh on Wednesday to discuss the Lebanese crisis.
Berri, a key figure in the opposition, also set off on a tour, but started with his ally -- and Al-Siniora's arch enemy -- Syria. He wants to convene the dialogue before a scheduled parliamentary session to elect a president on 22 April, but muted the call by indicating that the vote could simply be delayed again -- for the 18th time. Lebanon has had no president since Syrian- backed Emile Lahoud stepped down in November with no elected successor.
"Berri and Al-Siniora are each trying to convey to their constituencies and the Arabs in the region that they care about peace and want a way out, because if they don't do anything they will appear negligent," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
Khashan expected little from their "show of good intentions", believing the answer to the Lebanese crisis did not lie in Egypt or the Gulf but in Damascus and Tehran, which also backs Hizbullah. The opposition and some other analysts, however, accuse the United States -- and sometimes Saudi Arabia -- of blocking a solution by giving strong backing to Al-Siniora's government and encouraging domestic efforts to isolate Hizbullah. Many in Lebanon believe their country's stability partly rests on the fate of US- Iran tensions and the course of action of the next US president, to be elected in November.
Khashan also expected little of substance to come from the Abdullah-Mubarak summit. "I don't think Syria will give in to an Arab conference on Lebanon, it's too important to them."
In an apparent attempt to put pressure on the two sides, Army Commander Michel Suleiman, whom both has agreed upon as a consensus candidate, threatened to resign in August from the army. Despite agreement on Suleiman, the government and opposition are at loggerheads over power-sharing in a subsequent cabinet.
Suleiman told the leftist newspaper As-Safir he felt his dignity had been harmed by the wrangling. "As for reaching a consensus over me for the presidency, I agreed on this and I am still ready to serve my country and offer a solution in the interest of everyone. But if the end of my term as an army commander would facilitate reaching an alternative consensual candidate, I will not represent an obstruction and I will try my best to support any efforts to find a solution." Suleiman's term is due to end in November, but he said he planned to cut that short and resign on 21 August.
Al-Siniora said, however, that even if Suleiman retired from the army, he would remain a consensus candidate. Analysts and local reports mostly saw the interview as reflecting the army chief's growing frustration and sense of being dragged into the dispute between the two sides. It appears unlikely, however, that Suleiman's views, popular though he is, would be enough to tempt either side to back away from its entrenched positions.