with His Excellency Fuad Abdul Basset Siniora, Prime Minister of Lebanon

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In taking inventory of the situation in which Lebanon finds itself today, Prime Minister Fuad Abdul Basset Siniora outlined positive strides that the country has made in the last year. The Cedar Revolution signaled the people's insistence on democratic self-governance without outside manipulation or interference. According to Siniora, the momentum created by the massive, peaceful demonstrations emboldened citizens to demand greater rights of speech and assembly, and led to free parliamentary elections and a cabinet (including Siniora) that more accurately reflects the leadership choices of the people. In Siniora's estimation, another progressive step is the willingness shown last year by the fourteen Lebanese parliamentary blocs to enter into an ongoing process of dialogue as a means of building consensus on the many divisive issues that face the nation.

As Siniora highlighted major policy challenges facing Lebanon's leaders, he focused primarily on neighboring countries and peoples. Noting the ambivalent attitudes of most Lebanese toward Syria, Siniora observed their gratitude for Syrian help in stabilizing Lebanon during its civil war and in countering the Israelis. Yet, he reported that the Lebanese do not appreciate the suffocating effect of the continuing presence of the Syrians on Lebanon's efforts to redevelop its native governing capacity. What is needed today, Siniora stated, given Lebanon's desire for good relations with Syria, is a fundamental redefinition of relations between the two countries founded on mutual respect and independence.

An issue of great priority for Siniora is the need to bring an end to the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory, which has persisted in one form or another since 1978. Although the Israelis withdrew from most of Lebanon in 2000, they still occupy the Shebaa Farms region, which is the subject of a border dispute between Syria and Lebanon. Siniora believes that Israel needs to take three measures immediately: withdraw from Shebaa Farms; hand over the remaining Lebanese detainees in its custody; and reveal the location of the landmines it has purportedly laid in southern Lebanon. In Siniora's view, reaching a border agreement with Syria would more precisely clarify Israel's withdrawal obligations from the area.

Siniora recognized that the treatment of Palestinian refugees is an especially delicate issue for Lebanon. In his opinion, given the precedent for Palestinian refugee camps being used as safe havens and breeding grounds for terrorism, Lebanon should work to eliminate completely the presence of weapons among the Palestinians. Yet, Siniora remains aware of Lebanon's obligation to concern itself with the living conditions of the refugees. He pledged to work with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and with other countries to maintain the distribution of economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

Regarding challenges on the domestic front, Siniora noted that the term of Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, has been extended unconstitutionally as a result of outside interference by Syria. Siniora recommended that the existing dialogue process among the Lebanese political camps address this issue and generate possible solutions. Another major challenge to stability is the nature of Hezbollah's continued operations. Siniora acknowledged that Hezbollah played a positive role in forcing Israel's withdrawal in 2000. Yet, understanding the need for the state to have a monopoly on force, Siniora called for progress toward Hezbollah's eventual disarmament and integration into the Lebanese armed forces and greater society. Finally, Siniora called for comprehensive economic reform in Lebanon, which would involve greater market freedoms, provisions for the common welfare, and debt reduction.

In conclusion, Siniora considered Lebanon and its problems within greater regional and international context. He admitted readily that, as a small country with a high degree of openness and diversity, Lebanon is greatly affected by regional and international developments, and in turn exercises influence in these two realms. Given its longtime tradition of moderation and tolerance, Lebanon has, in his view, the ability to act as a beacon for the Arab and Muslim worlds to emerge from the twin shadows of despair and extremism. Siniora cautioned that imported pre-packaged solutions are not realistic for Lebanon. However, he emphasized the need for Lebanon to adapt to the ever-changing world while preserving its distinct identity, and to recognize the advantages of outside ideas that can be appropriated for local use because of the many similarities and interconnectedness among the Lebanese and peoples from other regions.

Siniora challenged the international community, and especially the United States and the West, to help Lebanon develop its own solutions by contributing to a climate of peace in the region. He noted that perhaps the most significant way the U.S. can help Lebanon is by placing pressure on the Israelis to achieve a "just peace" with the Palestinians, which would somehow rectify the historical injustice Siniora believes the Palestinian people have suffered. Achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians, in Siniora's opinion, will lessen the impetus for terrorism and for other extremist activities, and will increase capacity of the Lebanese government to rule effectively and self-sufficiently.

Drafted by Jim Zanotti