Near-impossible job for Lebanese premier

BEIRUT — Faced with the worst Israeli military onslaught in more than two decades, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has a near-impossible job as the leader of Lebanon.

The Western-backed leader finds himself walking a political tightrope, trying to reconcile widespread public opinion that the United States has shunned Lebanon in favour of Israel while keeping good relations with Washington and Hizbollah onboard his Cabinet.

Many believe the future of Lebanon and its stability at this difficult period hinges on the prime minister and his ability to manoeuvre internally and on the international scene.

“He is the protector of the country’s unity and its internal stability,” said political analyst Sateh Noureddine. “His actions are responsible and beneficial for the country, and are leaving a great impression abroad in America, Europe, Israel and the Arab world,” said Noureddine, managing editor of the As-Safir newspaper.

After the devastating Israeli air strike Sunday on the town of Qana that killed at least 60 people, more than half children, Saniora cancelled a visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and praised Hizbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah for his “sacrifices” and hinting retaliation may be justified.

“As long as the aggression continues there is response to be exercised,” he said as he struggled to rally his war-torn nation behind him and keep his fractured government from falling apart.

The remarks represent a significant departure for the anti-Syrian leader, who has had a tense relationship with Damascus-backed Hizbollah in recent months.

As the conflict began 20 days ago, Saniora put forward ideas that include deploying an international force in the south and a vague promise to disarm the fighters at a later stage. But after the Qana attack, he said any negotiations on a broader deal were off.

“We will not negotiate until the Israeli war stops shedding the blood of innocent people,” he said.

Whether his remarks were in a moment of anger at the horrific scenes of dead children or a shift in policy, Saniora remains the captain who has to navigate the country through its most difficult time in decades.

Saniora, 63, was a longtime trusted aide and business associate of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the architect of Lebanon’s reconstruction from the 1975-90 civil war who was killed in a 2005 car bombing.

After Hariri’s assassination, which many blamed on Syria, Saniora came to power in the first elections since Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon last year.

Since he took office a year ago, Lebanon’s relations with Syria have further deteriorated. The relations reached such a low point that Syrian President Bashar Assad called Saniora a “slave” who takes orders from his Western masters.

But Saniora never lost his nerve and kept preaching with a quiet tone that Syria must accept an independent Lebanon and establish diplomatic relations.

“Lebanese have to realise that they must make their own decisions by themselves, and the Syrian brothers have to get used to Lebanon being an independent country,” Saniora said late last year.

The dispute with Syria reflected tension with its Lebanese allies. Saniora’s Cabinet partners, Hizbollah, have taken an opposing line to that of Saniora and his backers in the anti-Syrian majority, particularly on relations with Syria and Western backing. The prime minister also has been at odds with President Emile Lahoud, a staunch pro-Syrian whom the anti-Syrian groups want to step down.

Saniora was able to hold firm until Israel started pounding the country in retaliation for Hizbollah’s capture of two of its soldiers on July 12.

A week after the bombardment began, Saniora criticised the world’s silence.

“Is the value of human life in Lebanon less than that of the citisens of other countries?” he asked during an address to foreign ambassadors.

He was also openly critical of the United States, which had been supportive of Saniora and his attempts to rid Lebanon of Syria influence.

“Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?” he asked.

In another speech, Saniora chocked back tears as he pleaded with the United Nations to broker a ceasefire for his “disaster-stricken nation.” His siding with Hizbollah as the country is being pounded from the air and the sea at least in the short-term ensures his government survives and his popular support swells as he attempts to end the conflict.

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