JERUSALEM (Nov. 21)
If chances of a Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement seemed distant after Israel’s war this summer with Hezbollah, the assassination of a leading Lebanese Christian politician has further dampened the prospects. Tuesday’s assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, a fierce critic of Syrian influence on his country, has sharpened the divisions between Lebanese of pro-Western leanings and those in league with Syria.
If such a conflict ends up with Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian forces gaining the upper hand, it will put the chance of an Israeli-Lebanese peace accord ever further over the horizon — and could entrench the Shi’ite terrorist group as the main powerbroker in Lebanon, doing the bidding of Syria and Iran and doing its utmost to keep Israel’s northern border under threat.
“It feels as though Lebanon could erupt into major internal strife, even civil war,” said Matti Steinberg, a retired Israeli intelligence analyst.
Tuesday’s hit had all the markings of a professional job. Gemayel’s car was cornered in a quiet Beirut suburb by gunmen who sprayed him with silenced weapons.
But there was nothing subtle about the blame-laying that was quick to follow.
“Today one of our main believers in a free democratic Lebanon has been killed. We believe the hands of Syria are all over the place,” said Sa’ad Hariri, whose father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in February 2005.
Gemayel’s uncle, Bashir, was assassinated shortly after being elected Lebanon’s president in 1982. He was in favor of normalizing ties with the Jewish state.
When Israel allowed Gemayel’s Christian militia into Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon to settle scores with the killers, the result was the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
Syria, whose decades-old history of meddling in Lebanese affairs has been under intense international scrutiny since Hariri pere’s death, denied involvement in the new assassination.
Yet analysts said Damascus had much to gain by eliminating a prominent reformist minister like Gemayel, especially since his loss further weakens a Lebanese government already hard-hit by the walkout earlier this month of six pro-Syrian Cabinet members.
“In situations like this, the question is: ‘Who stands to gain?’ ” said Jacky Hugi, Arab affairs correspondent for Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper. “What is plainly clear is that the Gemayel assassination threatens Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s most delicate initiatives.”
Hugi was referring to Siniora’s declaration that Hariri’s killers would be found and prosecuted in an international court, and his efforts, in the wake of Israel’s summer war with Hezbollah, to see a bolstered U.N. peacekeeper force deployed in the Shi’ite militia’s former southern strongholds.
The latter drive has put Siniora, a pro-Western moderate, on a collision course with Hezbollah, a proxy of Syria and Iran.
Hezbollah’s chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has stepped up his rhetoric against Siniora since the war ended. In the bluntest threat to the government, Nasrallah called Monday on loyal Shi’ites to flood the streets of Lebanon in a massive and potentially violent show of opposition to the government.
“We are on the verge of a coup,” observed Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese Druse leader.
Ironically, the Gemayel killing almost has certainly put the pro-Hezbollah protests on hold. To go ahead with them would be a breach of Lebanon’s public decorum.
But once the funeral is over and eulogies said, scores could be settled in blood.
“The news from Lebanon is another example of the kind of region, the kind of neighborhood we are living in,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said. “This is between moderates and extremists.”