In Lebanon, Syrians Still Behind the Wheel

As expected, the real plums are emerging only after the Arab summit meeting ended. Now, the verbal sparring can no longer be concealed in closed meetings. One of them, which is very relevant to Israel, relates to the great embarrassment Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh caused his boss, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

The story began some three weeks before the summit in Khartoum, which ended a few days ago. It began when Siniora and Salloukh met to discuss the wording of the resolution that Lebanon would present there. At the same time, there was also a session underway in Lebanon on the "national dialogue," attended by senior political representatives such as Hassan Nasrallah, Sa'ad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Beri, in an attempt to reach an understanding to resolve Lebanon's acute problems: the replacement of President Emile Lahoud, Palestinian disarmament, the status of the Shaba Farms and Hezbollah's disarmament. At this session, some very specific formulas were adopted, and in them the participants enlisted the full range and precision of the Arabic language.

So, for example, of the Shaba Farms it was said that "their borders will be defined" after Hezbollah objected to the phrase "their borders will be drafted." As far as the organization was concerned, "will be drafted" creates the impression that it is a problem that affects Syria and Lebanon only, as if the Shaba Farms were not occupied by Israel. The phrase "their borders will be defined," according to Hezbollah, is more fitting because between defining borders and drafting borders there is another step - liberating them from Israel - liberation that endows Hezbollah with justification for continuing to hold on to its arms.

But that is not the important story. Prime Minister Siniora was convinced that the version his foreign minister would present at the meeting of foreign ministers preceding the summit would be the one that the pair agreed upon. The wording states: "The League stresses its support for Lebanon in its efforts to have the occupied Lebanese Shaba Farms restored to it, to draft its borders and liberate the area of the village of Shuba, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978."

This version completely ignores the role of the "resistance," i.e., Hezbollah. It also neutralizes the necessity of armed conflict to liberate Shaba Farms and in effect lays the groundwork for asking Hezbollah to disarm. In the end of this process, believes Siniora, who is supported by the UN Envoy for Lebanese Affairs Terje Larsen - the UN will be able to come and ask Israel again to withdraw from Shaba Farms and thereby eliminate finally the pretext for Hezbollah's arming itself.

However, this is not what Syria and its supporters in Lebanon had planned. Without the knowledge of the Lebanese prime minister, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Mualem, arranged with his Lebanese counterpart some minor wording changes so that both Syria and Hezbollah would emerge satisfied. The new wording was as follows: "Lebanon seeks the support of the Arab countries for the liberation of Shaba Farms from the hands of Israel, as stipulated in UN Resolution 425 of 1978, and this shall be done by all legal means, including drafting the borders of Shaba Farms and in the framework of the brotherly ties between Lebanon and Syria, with an emphasis on the fact that the Lebanese resistance [i.e. Hezbollah - Z.B.] is a faithful and natural expression of the Lebanese people's right to liberate its land and defend its honor against Israeli aggression and covetousness."

Siniora read about this version in the Lebanese press one day after the foreign ministers' meeting. Salloukh did not bother to brief him for two days and when the newspaper Al Hayat asked Siniora about the matter, "he lowered his eyes and answered: It's nothing."

Two days before the summit and after an exchange of words between Siniora and his foreign minister, it was again clear to Siniora that the wording he presented would be the wording Lebanon would present.

And then, at the closed meeting ahead of the public announcement of the summit's resolutions, it became clear to Siniora that he had been tricked and that the version the Syrians worked out with his foreign minister would be the one to "represent" Lebanon. Siniora was fuming and the host, Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir, had to intervene to calm him down. In the end, he suggested a version that is somewhat reminiscent of the "right to object and defend one's honor." But it seems the revision did not reassure Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, who was also present in the room and shouted at the prime minister, "You're selling out the resistance (Hezbollah) and trading in the blood of Hariri (the assassinated Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri)."

Hezbollah and Syria got the version they wanted, and the Lebanese foreign minister is now trying to mend his relations with the prime minister, claiming that it was only a technical error. However to Siniora and the Hariri group it is crystal clear that the Syrians are continuing to navigate Lebanon's politics and that until Lahoud is removed from office, even the Siniora government will have a hard time setting its own course. But at least there was a binding formula produced for the matter of "drafting borders," which Larsen relied on when he visited Damascus this week in order to promote the issue of Shaba Farm. Israel, for its part, could have neutralized this Syrian effort and caused Hezbollah severe discomfort if only it were to declare now that it is ready to withdraw from Shaba Farms, regardless of its "national identity."

Amid the daily killings, abductions, car bombs and plain old robberies, the Iraqis are also finding time for a little humor, even if it is black humor. Columnist Khaled Zaki, for example, published the following list in the Iraqi paper Nahrain: "Due to a rise in incidents of fraud and deception and the emergence of several gangs claiming to have ties to higher-ups in the government and to American officers, and because these rogues demand outrageous sums in bribes, we hereby present you with the official bribery price list, so that you will not fall into the trap of these swindlers. We promise to update the prices as necessary."

The price chart consists of three columns. One lists the government ministry "service provider," the second lists the required service and the third lists the sum that has to be paid. For example, an appointment as a police police officer with the rank of lieutenant or captain, including a certificate attesting that the bearer served during the Saddam Hussein era and another certificate indicating that he was an opponent of Saddam's regime - one must pay the Interior Ministry a sum between $500-$1,000. This is a worthwhile investment because it promises a nice salary as well as a personal weapon and the authority to receive bribes from others. The release of a prisoner from Interior Ministry detention will cost the briber between $5,000 and $20,000, depending on the seriousness of the crime.

On the other hand, freeing a terrorist - so it specifically states - from U.S. detention will cost between $100,000-$200,000. Whoever wants to win the American tender to supply food must pay a bribe of between 10 and 20 percent of the value of the tender. On the other hand, anyone who wants to import a pre-2004 model car (this is illegal), pays only a $1,000 bribe to the customs authorities. A Kalashnikov rifle with 30 bullets costs $100,000-$150,000 and a transit card for gang members to cross from Syria or Jordan costs only $50 or a percentage of the ransom money collected from the person they abduct. A Ph.D. embossed with an original seal costs $600, a master's degree is $400 and an undergraduate degree costs $300. Updates, as mentioned, will follow shortly.