'Liberating' the Shaba Farms

Nothing could better serve Hezbollah's goals than the tragic results of the Qana bombing: Both the organization's supporters and its opponents must now close ranks around it. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who desperately wanted to continue the diplomatic process, was forced instead to suspend it and return to Hezbollah's initial position: no negotiations without a cease-fire. And this time, he has backing from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said that the time has come for a cease-fire, as well as from Europe and other potential contributors to a multinational force.

This is precisely the type of event that leaders of Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt had feared. The question of "who started it" - which had accompanied the fighting until now, and on which many Arab countries sided with Israel - became irrelevant yesterday. The Qana bombing has its own symbolism and its own political life.

However, it is clear to all parties in Lebanon that national mourning alone will not achieve a cease-fire. For this, they need the resolution that the UN Security Council was supposed to discuss on Wednesday.

The Lebanese do not only want a cease-fire: They also demand that Shaba Farms be defined as Lebanese territory in exchange for Beirut's agreement to deploy the Lebanese army on the Israel-Lebanon border and allow an international force to be stationed there. The question of who will command this force is still being debated: Beirut wants the force to be an expansion of the existing UN force in southern Lebanon, while Israel wants a force that is not under UN command.

Siniora is currently vying with Hezbollah to obtain an Israeli withdrawal from Shaba Farms, or at least an Israeli declaration of intent to do so. Siniora wants to use such a withdrawal to give his government leverage against Hezbollah, and for this, he needs a prompt Israeli agreement.

For Hezbollah, in contrast, there is no hurry: As long as Israel remains in Shaba, the organization can continue to use it as a pretext for not disarming. Or rather, one of two pretexts: According to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, his militia is justified both as a liberator of Lebanese land - Shaba Farms - and as a defender of Lebanon.

However, the Siniora-Hezbollah war over the credit for "liberating" Shaba is thus far stuck on Israel's refusal to quit the area without a comprehensive agreement that would deal Hezbollah a significant blow. One possible solution would be for Israel to offer Shaba to Syria - which, according to the UN, is the territory's legal owner. Another would be to withdraw unilaterally and let Lebanon and Syria fight over its ownership.

The Shaba issue also poses a dilemma for Syrian President Bashar Assad: Should he cede Shaba, thereby harming his protege, Hezbollah, or refuse to cede it, and be blamed for delaying a cease-fire? Based on past experience, it seems likely that he will choose to cede Shaba and try to obtain compensation from Washington.