Lebanon's choice in French-US peace plan

The French-US plan to halt the war in Lebanon went before the UN Sunday with a focus on forcing Lebanon's elected leaders to rein in Hizbullah's independent army. As in Iraq, a Middle East democracy is being asked to oppose Islamic terrorists.

Lebanon's final response won't come easily. Its democracy was already fractured before the war started July 14 by historic differences among 17 Shiite, Sunni, and Christian communities. Lebanon now verges on being a failed state. Its economy is in shambles, with hundreds of civilians killed by Israeli bombs and 750,000 displaced persons in desperate need of aid. Some leaders still operate under Syria's thumb.

And Iran's fingers are all over Hizbullah, a fellow Shiite group, which itself holds a minority of seats in parliament, even as its guerrillas operate outside the official army, raining missiles down on Israeli civilians.

Out of all, that Lebanon must make hard choices. The Franco-American proposal calls for a cessation of hostilities and immediate aid relief – both of which Lebanon must dearly want – but only by leaving Israel's forces in southern Lebanon until a French-led international force can control the area, leading to total withdrawal of Hizbullah forces.

Extracting Hizbullah fighters from the southern, mainly Shiite areas, where the organization is popular for its social welfare efforts, will require Lebanon's other political groups to stand up to both Syria and Iran, Hizbullah's backers. Lebanon's politicians must also accept direct negotiations with Israel to agree on a formal cease-fire and the international monitoring of its border to prevent a renewed flow of arms to Hizbullah from Iran and Syria.

In addition, Lebanon will need to make a difficult choice about the dispute over ownership of a small parcel of land known as Shebaa Farms, which historically belongs to Syria. That dispute has been conveniently used by Hizbullah to attack Israel, which controls it now.

In essence, Lebanon would need to allow France, with UN approval, to control its southern region until such time as Hizbullah fighters are under the control of the Lebanese Army. Only then can that army assume control up to the Israeli border.

France and the US are relying heavily on Lebanon's democracy to stand up for itself – as a democracy. The Lebanese who cheered the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon will now need to act in forcing Hizbullah to operate within the Lebanese state, rather than as an independent force seeking to destroy Israel.

Some aspects of the plan will probably be tweaked in coming days by the UN Security Council, such as the conditions for Israel releasing Lebanese prisoners. But the plan's goal is a reformed Lebanon.

The Security Council's Resolution 1559, passed in 2004 to force the Syrian withdrawal, had a provision calling for disarming Hizbullah and deploying the Lebanese Army at the border. But it was never enforced. This war has shown not only the necessity of that step but perhaps has created the political will among the Lebanese to lay aside their historic differences and act as a democratic body to create a state at peace with its neighbors in the Middle East.

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