Lebanon crisis / Waiting for the third bell
The relative quiet in Lebanon yesterday was like the quiet before the bell marking the end of a round in a boxing match. Each side counts its bruises and its achievements. These will be displayed today when the Arab League foreign ministers convene an emergency session in Beirut to propose another mediation attempt. By then the initial outlines of the country's new political map may be apparent: Hezbollah's assault on government positions, the shooting in the streets of Beirut, Sidon and other cities, and especially the threat to continue the assault, are meant to lead to the next step.
In deciding yesterday to reverse last week's cabinet resolutions that set off the fighting, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora took a necessary first step. The resolutions were to dismantle Hezbollah's private telephone network in the South and and a few other sites and to dismiss airport security chief Major General Wafiq Shukeir, who has ties to Hezbollah.
The second step will be renewing national dialogue to form a new government and to finally appoint a new president after nearly a year and a half of postponements. To achieve the first goal, Siniora may have to resign or agree to a unity government in which Hezbollah and its allies will be big enough to have veto power over the cabinet's cardinal decisions. The government is totally opposed to this, but it could pave the way to the appointment of the presidential candidate, Lebanese Army commander Michel Suleiman.
In the absence of such an agreement, an alternate proposal will likely be offered: Suleiman will be named acting prime minister, instead of president, and will call new elections on condition that a new election law that conforms with Hezbollah's demands is passed. Without the adoption of one of these compromises - which constitute a major concession on the part of the cabinet and the parliamentary majority - the political crisis that began over a year ago will continue to feed the threat of a new civil war.
At the same time, Hezbollah will have to decide whether to transfer to army control the positions it took last week. Lebanese commentators believe Hezbollah wants to prove it is a national, not sectarian, organization and thus will obey army directives while making its own demands. These could include making the army responsible for deciding whether Hezbollah has a military need for an independent telephone network. Hezbollah is gambling that the army will decide in its favor, dealing another tactical loss to the government.
But the army's real test will be its will and ability to drive the armed militants from the streets. For the army, 30 percent of which is Shi'ite, that will truly test its capability as a national force.
In any event, Hezbollah has already achieved its goal of being the catalyst for the next political round of the match, in which it is hoping for a knockout: achieving formal control of Lebanese politics, not just de facto control of the streets. That would definitely be good news for Syria, which this weekend was sentenced to another year of U.S. sanctions. After all, Syria has the key to the success of any Lebanese compromise deal, a key that has grown rusty over the past year.