Lebanon's leaders are haggling again, though the true balance of power has been laid bare, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
Lebanon's politicians squabbled this week over whether or not to enshrine Hizbullah's resistance to Israel in a ministerial statement to be adopted by the fledgling national unity government. But with the balance of power in favour of the Shia movement laid bare since the May strife, analysts said there was little doubt the alliance they dominate would again prevail.
A ministerial committee met 11 times at the time of writing to try to draw up the statement, with some from the "14 March" anti-Syrian movement opposing including the "right to resist" clause in the document. Hizbullah wants that right spelled out in the statement, as it was in the 2005 policy statement when the last government was sworn in, but the 14 March team wants a more vague wording.
This week, ministers have been expressing optimism that agreement was close. President Michel Suleiman, elected in late May under the Doha deal that halted Lebanon's descent into crisis, reportedly brought some pressure to bear. Analysts said capitulation was in any case all but inevitable. Hizbullah is in a strong position to push its demands, particularly following its lopsided prisoner swap with Israel in mid-July.
"I think we'll get a ministerial statement that will reflect the balance of power. I'd be surprised if it's very different to the 2005 wording," said Karim Makdisi, assistant professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut. "They'll defer serious discussion on [Hizbullah's] weapons to a national dialogue."
That dialogue, to be presided over by Suleiman, was one of the cures for Lebanon's crisis spelled out in the May Doha agreement that pulled the country back from the brink of civil war. The crisis was prompted by two government decisions to clamp down on Hizbullah -- one removing an airport security chief close to the group, the other banning its communications network.
Hizbullah, the Shia Amal Party and militia and smaller allies took over parts of western Beirut and other areas of the country, swiftly seizing Saad Al-Hariri's Sunni Future Movement's centres and arms caches and ceding them to the army. Although the decision to move against the Sunni movement in its Beirut strongholds stirred already languishing resentment against the group, the new reality has so far held, partly because vocal Western support for the Future Movement and its allies turned out to be only that.
A national unity government appointed earlier in July gives the former opposition its long- demanded third of cabinet seats, allowing Hizbullah to veto any further step towards seizing its weapons. "The weapons question was finished after the July 2006 war, but especially after the events of May and Doha," Makdisi said. "The main imperative of the March 14 people now is to save face. The opposition and Hizbullah are firmly in control of the agenda."
Hizbullah's critics say the group operates as a "state within a state", taking unilateral decisions on war and peace that embroil the whole country. Hizbullah's achievement of the release of the remaining five Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, however, has further boosted the group in the eyes of its supporters in Lebanon and the region and added to Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah's reputation for delivering on his promises, analysts say.
The release of Samir Al-Kantar, in particular, was hailed as a victory because he is reviled by Israelis as a murderer for his role in a 1979 commando operation in which three people were killed, including a young girl.
Many critics of Hizbullah argue that closing the Lebanese prisoner file removes one of the group's main pretexts to maintain its weapons, along with the continued Israeli occupation of a strategic sliver of the south, the Shebaa Farms. The UN ruled that territory part of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in 2000, when certifying Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon. But Lebanon and Syria both say it is Lebanese, and the United Nations is expected to amend its ruling.
Ibrahim Moussawi, former head of Hizbullah's Al-Manar television channel, now lecturer in political science at the American University in Beirut, said Hizbullah was in a stronger position than ever after the prisoner exchange. "When Hizbullah has been able to bring tangible results for what it has been campaigning for the last few years, I believe it is in a position to persuade the Lebanese that armed resistance has been a success," he said.
Hizbullah's critics on the ministerial committee were trying to ensure the wording of the statement on the resistance was vague. "They want expressions and terms that could be interpreted different ways by different parties, in order to help them later," Moussawi said. He expected an imminent breakthrough on the statement.
Makdisi said Hizbullah had ensured it was "ahead of the curve" by moving on to a new agenda in recent rhetoric. "Hizbullah has moved on from the Shebaa Farms and prisoners to talking about a national defence strategy," he said. "And that will take years. It needs a proper army and a detailed, intricate plan to integrate Hizbullah fighters into the army."
Although a national dialogue is expected soon, Lebanon's divided sectarian leaders are unlikely to agree on anything substantial because all eyes are on next May's parliamentary election and the present government is seen as merely temporary. A statement stressing the need for a defence strategy while leaving the weapons status quo as it is would be the most likely outcome.
"They've understood the need to let others save face. That's why they came up with the national dialogue," Makdisi said.
Moussawi said discussions on the fate of weapons were likely to lay bare Lebanon's internal rift between the pro-US camp and its opponents. "I think differences will re-emerge soon. I believe these could be long, tough negotiations."
Lebanon's traditional political weathervane, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, appeared to many to seal the shift towards Syria's allies and away from an era of intense US interest in Lebanon by apparently shifting positions -- again -- in an interview with New TV at the weekend. Once Syria's ally, then its staunchest foe during the past three years of rift between US allies and their opponents, Jumblatt criticised US interference.
"I am staying within 14 March but I want to remind them of Arabism and Palestine, which is more sacred than sanctity itself," he told the channel. "We can balance between the resistance and the state, as long as the final decision remains in the hands of the state," he added.
Jumblatt, a wily survivor who has long been known to switch positions where expedient to preserve his political clout and that of his mountain sect, had been the most hawkish voice of 14 March. "He understands the US moment has weakened and the Syrians are coming back," Makdisi said.
Syria dominated Lebanon politically and militarily in the post-war era but was forced to leave after former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination in February 2005. Relations between the two countries hit an all-time low in the intervening years, with anti-Syrians dominating the government. But a sea change appears to be imminent, with diplomatic ties, which have never existed between the neighbours, now promised by both sides. Damascus has good ties with the new president, but unlike his pro-Syrian predecessor, Suleiman was brought in on a "consensus" ticket with the blessing of 14 March.
With the blow to US allies in Lebanon and the apparent easing of Syria's isolation, particularly after President Bashar Al-Assad's warm welcome in Paris two weeks ago, the Syrians seem able to breathe easy for now. "The one wild card is a US or Israeli attack on Iran. If not, things are set for the next couple of years," Makdisi said.