As Israel's war in Lebanon enters its third week and the Lebanese civilian casualties increase by the hour, international diplomacy has gone into full swing. A consensus appears to have finally emerged that the fighting must stop before negotiations can resolve the underlying differences between Israel and Lebanon.
The Bush administration and Tony Blair's government lean toward a United Nations resolution that calls for a cease-fire in a package deal that calls for a U.N.-mandated multilateral force to separate combatants in southern Lebanon.
The best hope for a viable settlement of the unfolding Israeli-Lebanese crisis lies in the peace plan of the Lebanese prime minister, Fuad Siniora, which has been approved by the Cabinet, including the two Hezbollah ministers. The Siniora peace plan, which was praised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, provides a way out of the deadly embrace, a deadly embrace that has wrecked the Lebanese civilian infrastructure, killed almost 600 Lebanese civilians, injured 2,000, and displaced another 750,000 people from their homes. Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 19 civilians.
What does the Siniora plan offer? First and foremost, the plan calls for an immediate stop to the killing and bloodshed that has taken a huge toll on the civilian population and has undermined the democratically elected Lebanese government. Second, there would be an exchange of Israeli and Lebanese prisoners. The two Israeli soldiers would be delivered to the Lebanese government which, in turn, would repatriate them to Israel. Three Lebanese prisoners, who have spent 15 years in Israeli jails, would also be freed.
Third, the Lebanese army would be deployed to southern Lebanon and would replace Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Israeli border. The goal is for the Lebanese government to expand its sovereignty over the whole country. The Siniora plan welcomes a multinational national force in southern Lebanon to supplement the Lebanese army.
Fourth, the Siniora plan asks for a commitment from the United Nations and the international community to resolve the status of a tiny piece of land held by Israel and claimed by Lebanon -- the Shabaa Farms -- and to put this strip of land under the control of the U.N. pending determination of its ownership. This is an important point because Hezbollah has asserted that it won't disarm unless the occupied Shabaa Farms are liberated. Resolving the status of the Shabaa Farms pulls the rug from underneath Hezbollah.
Fifth, the Siniora plan envisions a serious internal dialogue to fully integrate Hezbollah fighters into the Lebanese army and thus disarm the organization. A consensus is emerging among the Lebanese political class that the status quo is no longer viable; the legitimate government must be the only agency that possesses a monopoly on the use of force. The Siniora plan is clearly based on this premise. If and when the fighting stops, Hezbollah would come under considerable pressure from within the country to accept the national consensus.
In his last media appearance, the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, hinted that the current battle is the last one that Hezbollah fights. What this means is that Nasrallah and his allies seem to be willing to accept a political settlement that is not "humiliating" and that addresses their vital interests.
Finally, the Siniora peace package calls for the creation of an international reconstruction plan to rebuild in Lebanon what the Israeli military onslaught has destroyed – a sort of Marshal Plan. Stability and peace in Lebanon requires a global effort heal the wounds inflicted on its civilian population.
I fear that the longer the conflict continues, the weaker the democratically elected Lebanese government will be and less capable of expanding its sovereignty over the country. Far from weakening Hezbollah, Israeli military onslaught has increased its popularity in Lebanon and throughout the Muslim world.
A national public opinion poll conducted in Lebanon last week by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, with participation by the Lebanese American University showed a sharp rise in public support for Hezbollah. Eighty seven percent of all respondents said they support Hezbollah's military response to the Israeli attacks (including 89 percent of Sunnis and 80 percent of Christians). Eighty nine percent of respondents said the United States was not an honest broker and did not respond positively to Lebanon's needs and concerns. Five months ago, just 58 percent supported Hezbollah's right to remain armed.
What the findings clearly show is that Israel's punitive measures against the Lebanese people have not turned them against Hezbollah; rather they have embraced the resistance movement. In the eyes of many Lebanese and Muslims, Hezbollah is seen as a symbol of defiance and resistance that has weathered the Israeli storm and has taken the initiative. The leader of Hezbollah, Nasrallah, has emerged as an iconic hero of the Arab and Muslim world.
A solution based on the Siniora plan provides an acceptable political solution to both camps. It would stop the bloodletting and the destruction. It would bring about lasting peace between Lebanon and Israel. It would empower the democratically elected Lebanese institutions and enable them to resolve internal tensions and differences. Now is the time to end the killing and begin negotiations.
Fawaz A. Gerges, author of the recently published "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy," is a senior analyst for ABC television news and a Carnegie scholar.