Syria protest Lebanon
Syrian women and children fleeing toward the Lebanese border, May 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Last Friday, residents of the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras expected large numbers of Palestinians to come and hold prayers to mark the death of the 11 protesters who were killed during Nakba Day protests on May 15. The Lebanese Army was on alert for memorial gatherings and even another attempt to dash to the border fence. But none of this took place.

There were no gatherings, no prayers and no marches. From the point of view of Maroun al-Ras and other border villages, the Nakba, or catastrophe, was over. Lebanon returned quickly to its usual daily upheavals, without a government and with deep worries over the forecasts about a gloomy tourism season this year.

January 2011, which brought such great hopes in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, marked a crisis point in Lebanon. It was during that month that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman appointed Najib Mikati to set up a new government, after 11 ministers from Hezbollah and Amal resigned, felling the coalition of Saad Hariri.

Since then, five months have gone by and Lebanon still does not have a government. Mikati's attempts to set one up have failed, especially because of Gen. Michel Aoun's insistence on holding key portfolios. Meanwhile, Hariri's government is continuing to run affairs in the country without any real legitimacy and without being able to make strategic decisions.

"This is a situation that plays well into the hands of the Americans and their allies," the Beirut-based As-Safir newspaper wrote over the weekend, "because without an authorized government Hezbollah too does not have the possibility of influencing events."

On Thursday, the American Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, arrived in Lebanon to explain to Suleiman what U.S. President Barack Obama intended to convey with his Mideast speech. Feltman flatly denied that he had discussed the setting up of a government in Lebanon with Suleiman and sent a clear message to the public that "the United States is not involved in putting together the government in Lebanon."

But he said the U.S would examine its relations with the Lebanese government in light of its composition and actions, and the steps it will take with regard to the international criminal court that is discussing the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, believed to be tied to Hezbollah.

Does this mean that the U.S. will not cooperate with a Lebanese government that includes representatives of Hezbollah? Certainly not. After all, Washington worked together with other Lebanese governments in which Hezbollah, designated by the State Department as a terrorist group, was a full partner.

It is therefore difficult to understand why Washington is not prepared to apply to the Palestinians what it is happy to do in Lebanon.

And perhaps, as in Lebanon, America will agree to carry on business with a government in which Hamas, also listed as a terrorist group, is a member, but will not expect Israel to conduct negotiations with them.

It is difficult to understand too whether the U.S. has a clear policy vis-a-vis Lebanon and what it intends to do if the killings of demonstrators in Syria continues. True, Feltman asked the Lebanese to absorb the Syrian refugees who are fleeing Bashar Assad's murderous tendencies, but with respect to other refugees, Feltman actually managed to annoy his hosts.

His interlocutors in Beirut listened to him intently and especially to a short sentence in which he clarified that the issue of the Palestinian refugees was not on the table at present. Mikati was reportedly astounded. He made it clear to Feltman that "this subject" might be the most important in the eyes of Lebanon, which is "hosting" more than 350,000 Palestinian refugees.

Lebanon has refrained from absorbing these refugees as citizens for decades, not merely to prevent them from forgetting the Nakba or neutralizing their demand to return to their homeland.

Granting citizenship to so many Sunnis would upset the volatile demographic composition of Lebanon. This is not merely the fear of the Christians but also of the Shiites in Lebanon - including and perhaps especially Hezbollah - who reject any suggestion to increase the number of Sunnis in that country.

For this reason, Lebanon is anxiously awaiting the arrival of September, when an independent Palestinian state may be declared. If that happens, Lebanon will be able to demand of the Palestinian government to gather into its borders those refugees who are waiting in Lebanon.

When the Palestinian refugee problem is "not on the table," Lebanon has less of an interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recalling the Nakba at Maroun al-Ras, it turns out, did not help Lebanon so much, and additional demonstrations are apparently not expected in the near future.

Syrians in, tourists out

Meanwhile, Lebanon has to be concerned about the influence of the Arab revolutions on its quality of life. The more Syrian refugees that arrive in Lebanon, the fewer tourists make the journey. The chairman of the hotel association in Lebanon, Pierre Achkar, reported in the past few days that the hotel industry had already been forced to dismiss some 20 percent of its manpower and that the occupancy rate in hotels had dropped by some 27 percent as compared with last year, while revenue from the first quarter of the year when the upheavals began in the Arab states, had plummeted by some 53 percent.

These data do not include the losses incurred by owners of nightclubs, restaurants, souvenir shops and the other branches associated with tourism.

With all this going on, it is unlikely anyone is interested in a war with Israel. It may seem Assad could use a Hezbollah attack on Israel to divert attention from his own problems, but Hezbollah also has more important interests - for example, how it will survive if Assad goes.