Thursday, May 1, 2008

The pros and cons of a Lebanese dialogue

The pros and cons of a Lebanese dialogue
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 01, 2008

It was a mixed week for the head of the Democratic Gathering, Walid Jumblatt. His call for an all-party dialogue under the auspices of the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, was gently downgraded by the majority to preliminary contacts between Berri and Saad Hariri, "to guarantee a presidential election on May 13." But the detention in the southern suburbs of a French Socialist representative Jumblatt had invited to Beirut was a useful reminder to the comrades on the left that Hizbullah has brashly created a state within a state.

What was Jumblatt's initial rationale for supporting a return to the kind of national dialogue sessions Berri ran in early 2006, before the summer war between Hizbullah and Israel? Here's a guess. The Druze leader probably calculated that since no presidential election was soon likely, it was best to stabilize the situation on the ground through a soothing conversation mechanism. The advantages would be to restate the gains made in the previous sessions while also moving to a discussion of Hizbullah's weapons. With Berri in charge, the speaker would gain some leverage over Hizbullah while also discrediting Michel Aoun, who supposedly remains the opposition's "official" negotiator.

Jumblatt perhaps also saw his initiative as a way of wriggling out of the bothersome offer floated by some opposition members to exchange a presidential election for agreement over the 1960 election law. The majority could be split by a parliamentary election law that fails to satisfy its diverse leaders and groups, and March 14 still has serious problems with the 1960 law. In the public's eye, however, this quid pro quo may have sounded reasonable. So what better way for March 14 to neutralize it than by showing flexibility on a dialogue where little would be conceded?

If that was Jumblatt's calculation, it was defensible. But an all-national dialogue also poses serious problems. Many Christians, especially those in the March 14 coalition, will see it as an abandonment of the parliamentary majority's priority to elect a president. Such a dialogue would mainly reward Berri, even though he is the person most responsible for blocking Parliament and has never challenged Syrian dictates. And as the 2006 dialogue sessions showed, shifting attention to a gathering of major political leaders could undermine the authority of the government - unhelpful at a moment when an increasing number of Lebanese realize that an effective state is the only thing preventing a breakdown in the country.

The question of how an expansive dialogue (if it happens) might affect Hizbullah's weapons is more intriguing. The party's decision to abduct Israeli soldiers in July 2006, which triggered the summer war, was in part an effort by Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, to prepare the ground for a discussion in the national dialogue sessions of the party's "defense strategy." Had the operation succeeded, Nasrallah would have been able to turn to the parliamentary majority and argue that Hizbullah's way was the best way, aborting any further talk of disarmament.

Instead, what Lebanon got was a month of carnage. Hizbullah's defense strategy was shown to be a recipe for mass destruction, so that today the Shiite community is, understandably, the most fearful whenever Nasrallah's mentions war. That, along with the fact that Hizbullah's capacity to intimidate its Lebanese opponents has evaporated in the past year, could make it a good time to raise the weapons issue. But would Hizbullah agree to go along with this? Nothing is less certain, which is why Jumblatt's offer of a dialogue may also have been a ploy to push the onus of rejecting compromise onto Nasrallah's shoulders.

That doesn't change the fact that with or without a dialogue, a presidential election remains unlikely, unless Syria has decided to cut Lebanon some slack. Reports in Qatar's daily Al-Watan suggest an imminent regional breakthrough is in the cards, but until now nothing yet proves this. The harsh reality is that Lebanon appears to be doing fine without a Maronite head of state, even if no one cares to admit it. When the followers of Michel Aoun next declare that they are best equipped to defend Christian interests, they might want to answer how hindering the election of a president - a president no one seems particularly to miss - proves this.

Making matters doubly pernicious, undue haste on an election by the majority, while it may bring a Maronite to office, could be disastrous for Lebanon in general. The country is not ready to enter into a period of prolonged vacuum that an election would provoke if Syria opposes it. How so? Let's assume the best-case (and highly unlikely) scenario in which March 14 and Michel Murr elect a president by a vote of a simple majority of parliamentarians, where would that lead? The government would be in a state of resignation, with constitutionally limited powers; the new president would face major impediments in forming a government, and therefore would be a president only in name; and if Suleiman is the anointed one, the army would find itself without its top commander.

Is electing a president now worth all that? Unfortunately not, which is why Aoun's refusal to participate in an election has been so thoroughly destructive. The general thought he could ride a wave of Christian anger at the absence of a president right into the Baabda palace. As usual, his calculations were wrong. Thanks to him, the Christians are silent, their main political post is empty, and any effort to alter the status quo might destabilize Lebanon in a way no one desires. So, unless something is happening behind the scenes that we are not seeing, brace yourselves for more empty promises of an election in the coming months.

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