Last Wednesday negotiations that went on for almost two years reached a highly successful conclusion, from the viewpoint of Hassan Nasrallah. "No Arab country has been able to close its file of prisoners and MIAs," the secretary general of Hezbollah said, as though he himself were a head of state. Still, even now he stuck to custom and offered not a scrap of information about the condition of the Israeli abductees.
On the other hand, he effused generosity toward his political rivals. "This is a victory for all of us," he declared. "We should all celebrate." It is not only a Lebanese victory, he said, but one of all Arabs and Muslims.
Gloating and smiling, Nasrallah took the unusual step of describing in detail the negotiations with Israel, emphasizing in particular his guiding principles: total secrecy; release of all the Lebanese prisoners, headed by Samir Kuntar; obtaining all the bodies of fighters who came out of Lebanon, "whether they are Lebanese, Palestinian or Arab," including those killed before the Lebanon War; release of Palestinian and Arab prisoners; and receipt of information about the fate of four Iranian diplomats. Nasrallah did not omit saying that Israel at first did not even ask for the body parts of its fallen soldiers that remained in Lebanon. As he put it, "It seemed as though Israel forgot we had body parts in our possession."
His rivals were fiercely critical of the prisoner exchange deal - not because of the return of the Lebanese prisoners but because of the prestige it accords Nasrallah. Amin Gemayel, the former Lebanese president and a minister-designate in the new cabinet, complained that "the state of Lebanon was absent from the negotiations" and that "the signing of an agreement between a state and a Lebanese organization is a new model of indirect diplomatic activity with Israel. What is there to prevent a non-Lebanese mediator, such as the president of France or the king of Jordan, from conducting negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on liberating the remaining occupied lands in Lebanon and on blocking the Israeli violations?"
Gemayel's sarcasm was aimed both at Nasrallah and at Syria, which intends to hold direct talks with Israel. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, also spoke his mind: "How does it happen that some of us have the right to conduct negotiations for the return of prisoners, to conduct negotiations with Israel on the table and under the table, whereas Lebanon is not allowed to demand international protection for the Shaba Farms and, when that idea is raised, its government is accused of collaborating with the enemy?"
What these trenchant critics forget to mention is that the abductees are not in their hands to be negotiated for; that the Israeli government did not insist that the contacts be held exclusively with the government of Lebanon or with mediators of its choice; and that Hezbollah proposed that the Lebanese government mediate, on condition that the abductees remain in the organization's hands. Now, when the time has come to reap the rewards, the critics can only whine over their weak stance.
These events are strung like beads on the slight string that Syrian President Bashar Assad last week termed a "positive atmosphere in the Middle East." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was scheduled to meet with Assad in Damascus last weekend. This week a new government is supposed to be installed in Beirut, and at the end of this week Assad will visit France to take part in the summit meeting of the Mediterranean Union, the big project of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The dialogue with Israel is progressing; another "Turkish round" took place last week, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem no longer had a problem stating that the discussions held last week in Turkey were intended to lead to direct negotiations. He even abstained from reiterating his statement of last week, according to which Prime Minister Olmert will not meet with Assad at the Mediterranean Union event. Indeed, people who sit at the same table will probably not be able to evade a handshake.
Assad also has a few other arrangements to make. For example, he has to decide whether to accede to the request of Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, who visited Damascus last week, and organize a meeting between Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshal. Moallem explained that the invitation to Abbas is part of the Syrian effort to bring about Palestinian reconciliation. How can reconciliation be brought about without the sides meeting, and where can the sides both meet and reposition Assad on the region's diplomatic map if not in Damascus?
True, Hamas and Fatah spokespersons have made it clear that no meeting is planned between the two and that no arrangements have been made for such an encounter. But with Egypt dallying and still not inviting the leaders of the two camps to meet in Cairo, why should Assad not snatch an important political victory? After all, Hamas is angry at Egypt, and there are some in the organization who are calling for Egypt's replacement as a mediator with Israel. These people say it is untenable for Egypt to mediate in a deal involving the release of prisoners from Israel when Cairo itself is holding three commanders of Hamas' military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, in detention. (By the way, one of the three is Iman Nufal, who was a key organizer of the breaching of the border fence between Gaza and Egypt half a year ago.)
Still, despite the anger, Hamas knows it cannot forgo the services of Egypt, as only Cairo can conduct negotiations with Israel, both in any deal for the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit and for the continued implementation of the terms of the Israel-Hamas tahadiyeh (truce). That this need not detract from Syria's ability to play a useful role was demonstrated when Damascus pressed Hamas to accept the tahadiyeh. This fact is not lost on Abbas, who will meet in Damascus with representatives of all the Palestinian groups affiliated with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) that continue to coordinate their positions with Hamas.
Syria will also have an important part to play in the reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas and the other groups. Those talks were supposed to begin two weeks ago, and there were reports that Abbas was to visit Gaza for the first time since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip a year ago. But Abbas decided to switch tactics and first muster the support of the moderate Arab states, and now also Syria, in order to ensure that his conciliation initiative will have Arab backing.
Nasrallah has started to wonder about Syria, which is returning step by step to the Arab "mainstream." Assad told the Norwegian foreign minister last week that as far as he is concerned, there is nothing to prevent the Shaba Farms from being placed under United Nations protection, though the demarcation of the border between Lebanon and Syria, which will determine the final status of the Shaba Farms, will have to wait until the IDF withdraws. The very fact that the farms will be placed in UN custody will raise anew the question of Hezbollah's military role. After the release of the Lebanese prisoners, and if Israel leaves the Shaba Farms, and in the wake of the understanding that the Lebanese army is the only force that should protect the country, the dispute over disarming Hezbollah will break out again in Lebanon. Hezbollah, of course, will have enough excuses to hang on to its weapons. It is also hard to see any force in Lebanon that can disarm Hezbollah, but from a public point of view, Nasrallah will face unnecessary pressure from his perspective. Nor has Nasrallah made public his position on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. If the indirect talks morph into direct negotiations, and if the United States joins the discussions after the presidential elections, Syria and Hezbollah will have to reexamine their mutual relations. It will be a delicate examination, because Hezbollah continues to act as a key anchor for Syria's political control in Lebanon, but the more important this becomes, the greater becomes Syria's dependence on the organization's political behavior.
The Doha Agreement, which generated the breakthrough for the election of the president and the establishment of a unity government in Beirut, provided both Hezbollah and Syria with an important achievement. However, a government has still not been formed, and this is becoming an urgent priority for Syria. Assad would like to arrive in Paris with the affair of the government behind him and after a state visit to Beirut, where he is scheduled to announce for the first time the opening of a Syrian embassy in the Lebanese capital. As part of the new deal, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora will visit Damascus.
This will mark the final acceptance of Syria by the government of Lebanon, and Assad's most important diplomatic victory. The days ahead will show whether Hezbollah and its partners have the ability to stretch the web of Syrian interests in Lebanon and how far Assad's timetable matches that of Nasrallah.
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