I recently traveled over Labor Day weekend to Lebanon and Israel with two other members of Congress. Our purpose was to assess the political and economic situation in both countries.
We were immediately struck by how few people were in the shops, cafes, and streets of Beirut. The outbreak of military hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah has had a profound negative impact on the overall economy of Lebanon. The internal Lebanese situation was problematic even before the current military crisis began. Prime Minister Siniora’s government, elected last year, has been struggling to establish a new stable political order following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al Hariri. The President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, is tied closely to Syria and unable to offer any strong leadership. Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri is also close to the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. This leaves Prime Minister Siniora on his own in efforts to develop relationships with the world community to assist with funding.
President Bush’s $230 million commitment to Lebanon to assist with rebuilding, as well as Secretary Rice’s visit to Lebanon, have enabled Prime Minister Siniora to raise over $900 million for humanitarian and rebuilding funds. It’s imperative that 15,000 Lebanese troops be deployed to Southern Lebanon. Also, the deployment of U.N. troops along the Syrian border is critical to prevent Iran and Syria from rearming Hezbollah. The lifting of the blockade against ships entering the Lebanese ports, which was announced upon our return to Washington, will go a long way in solving some of the serious economic problems in Lebanon. These ships off the Lebanese shore will now be inspected by officials of the German, Italian, and French governments, preventing Iran from shipping arms through the Lebanese ports.
Our visit to Israel included meetings with the American Ambassador, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni, plus meetings with the Israeli government equivalent of our CIA and FBI. A new government under the Kadima party and headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected, following the grave illness of Ariel Sharon. Prime Minister Olmert is falling in the polls for his handling of the attack on Hezbollah. He’s dealing with several internal issues, including problems along the Gaza Strip and West Bank, a very weak Palestinian Authority, and fiscal issues that affect the economy. In our meeting with Minister Livni, she made it clear Israel will continue to do all it can to assist with the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1701. She believes Lebanon is the one Arab country Israel had confidence could be partners in the war against terror and had potential along with Israel to stabilize the region. She stressed that much work had to be accomplished by Lebanon to reach this goal.
My own view of the situation having been in the region is that Prime Minister Siniora is doing all he can to stabilize Lebanon. I believe he’ll meet many of his goals, and that Israel is committed to developing opportunities to work with Lebanon to secure the Lebanese and southern border. Iran is creating much of the backdrop, encouragement, and arms for what’s taken place between Lebanon and Israel. However, between the shared goals to stop Iran’s progress, I feel this can be accomplished. It’s a long road ahead, but I sense an air of optimism from both sides. IBI