Thursday, April 26, 2007

Two openings March 14 might consider

Two openings March 14 might consider
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 26, 2007

It's never easy to discern movement in the midst of glacial stalemate, but the ice has definitely budged in the past 10 days in Lebanon. The Hariri tribunal is almost certain to be established, whether through Lebanese institutions or through the United Nations Security Council; and the heat is building up on the opposition to agree to a presidential election amid a widening consensus that Emile Lahoud, whatever else happens, will not remain in office beyond the end of his term.

Many more difficulties lie ahead, but the visit to Beirut last week of Nicolas Michel, the UN's chief legal adviser, was a decisive step in the establishment of the tribunal. Michel sent as explicit a message as the opposition and Syria will ever receive that the tribunal is coming, whatever their displeasure. However, it was Russia's deputy foreign minister, Alexander Sultanov, who lowered the knife on Syria by indicating that Moscow would not veto recourse to Chapter 7 in the event the tribunal remained blocked in Lebanon.

Sultanov's message to Syrian President Bashar Assad probably went like this: Accept the tribunal through the Lebanese constitutional process, since you can then influence what happens; but once it reaches the UN, there's little we can do to help you. There are no signs, however, that Assad intends to change direction.

Hizbullah and other opposition groups have sounded apocalyptic when mentioning the possible domestic impact of a Chapter 7 tribunal. One Hizbullah parliamentarian took the gold by predicting it might lead to civil war. Precisely why the passage of a tribunal over which all Lebanese allegedly agree should lead to war remains a mystery.

But Hizbullah, for all its frustration with the majority, has very little latitude, or desire, to provoke a conflict that would lead to sectarian meltdown. That's why the party has mainly directed its vitriol against a Druze, Walid Jumblatt, and a Maronite, Samir Geagea, not against Saad Hariri and the Sunni community that is most insistent about the need to see the tribunal formed. A Sunni-Shiite clash is a red line that Iran will not cross.

Similarly, Hizbullah has indicated that its focus is now on early legislative elections to replace what it considers an illegitimate Parliament. This implies the presidential election might not be held on time, since Parliament elects the president. The party's logic is confusing. If a new president takes office, then constitutionally the current Siniora government will fall, an objective the opposition has spent over four months trying to achieve.

On the other hand, if the opposition blocks the election, then it will be blamed for carrying the country into a political vacuum. A scheme being floated by the opposition is for Lahoud to name an interim government headed by Michel Aoun. However, not only would this be unconstitutional, Aoun has reportedly said he would not accept such a poisoned apple unless he were guaranteed the presidency.

Hizbullah remains militarily powerful, but its political inflexibility is proving disastrous. The party and the Amal movement can thank Syrian intransigence for that. Because Assad refuses to concede anything on the Hariri tribunal, we may be nearing the time when Hizbullah and Amal have to tell the Syrians they've done all they can on Syria's behalf, but that they now need to shore up their declining domestic position.

In order to maintain the initiative, but also to block any outside effort to sow domestic conflict over the Hariri tribunal, March 14 needs to do more. It should open up in two directions: toward the Shiite community, over Hizbullah's head; and toward Aoun, who has been oddly silent in recent weeks, perhaps in recognition of the fact that his vision for Lebanon and that of his transitory ally, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, are irreconcilable - at least if Nasrallah's April 8 speech is the benchmark.

With respect to the Shiites, the majority might want to think of putting on the table a quid pro quo: a timetable to discuss constitutional reforms and a redistribution of political power among all communities, in particular the Shiites, in exchange for Hizbullah's willingness to accept a timetable for its disarmament. Since the majority is calling for Hizbullah's disarmament under Taif, it can also discuss what Taif focused on: political reform.

The idea would be to compel Hizbullah to explain to its own community why retaining its weapons is preferable to the Shiites' gaining a larger share of political representation through peaceful means. At the same time, creating a schedule for Hizbullah's disarmament need not mean insisting on a short deadline. As in the Northern Ireland peace process through which the IRA surrendered its weapons, it can take years.

At the same time, the majority can do more to break Aoun away from Hizbullah and from the smaller pro-Syrian groups, with whom he has no affinity. The main hurdle is Aoun's stubborn insistence that he alone must become president. This might not change.

However, the majority can tell the general publicly that while it will never accept him in Baabda, it will agree to a candidate that he names in cooperation with other major Maronite representatives, such as Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and Geagea. Needless to say, Aoun, because he controls the balance in Parliament for a two-thirds majority, would have much more say in the matter than Sfeir or Geagea, and could substantially shape the president's agenda.

Admittedly, that's not as easy as it sounds. With most Maronite politicians fantasizing over the presidency, there will be growing cracks within the majority over who succeeds Lahoud. But the value of giving Aoun a choice role in the selection process is that it would minimize dejection among the general's supporters if he is not elected.

While Aoun's popularity among Christians has declined, it is not insignificant; nor is it in the interest of March 14 to allow the community to succumb to the despondency that defined it during the 1990s. If Aoun were given the means to advance his program through a candidate that he and other Christian representatives could choose, he would have less leeway to argue that he is personally indispensable for a Christian revival.

These two steps - putting on the table political reform that would advantage Shiites in parallel with Hizbullah's disarmament, and building bridges to Michel Aoun - could help the majority consolidate the gains it has recently made. Now is the time for March 14 to press ahead, but also to show the opposition that it can only lose by perpetuating deadlock.

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