Nasrallah and Lebanon / For Now, Just Arm Wrestling

Hassan Nasrallah is readying the table for his arm wrestling contest with the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. For now, they are in the warm up and cheering stage, with both of them hoping never to get to a violent confrontation. Nasrallah would prefer a national unity government in which the Shi'ite members (Hezbollah and Amal) have veto power over every decision of national importance. This would allow Nasrallah to get the entire pot without paying a political price: he would get to veto anything he does not like without having to contest an election and without being accused of destroying Lebanon for his demonstrations.

But if Siniora's government does not cave in to Nasrallah's demands to give Syria's supporters (who now include Michel Aoun) one-third of the cabinet seats, Nasrallah will find it difficult to back down and will be forced to bring down the government and to run for election.

For Israel, this is bad news, since it could block any progress on UN Resolution 1701 and its predecessor, Resolution 1559. Veto power for Hezbollah and its supporters could also bring about the gradual withdrawal of UNIFIL forces from southern Lebanon and end the disarmament of Hezbollah together with the trial of the murderers of Rafik Hariri.

Until Nasrallah's call for demonstrations yesterday, and in effect until a time and place for these street demonstrations is announced, discussion of the legality of the Lebanese government had meaning. According to the constitution, the government must represent all sects proportionately, in accordance with the 1989 Taif agreement. The resignation of the Hezbollah ministers ostensibly violated that proportional representation, but the constitution does not address the possibility of one party voluntarily leaving the government and disturbing the balance. It also does not say that Hezbollah or Amal must be the representatives of the Shi'ites.

The question now, however, is whether Lebanon is on the brink of a new civil war and who can stop it from going over the edge. The good news is that no one inside or outside Lebanon, including Iran or Syria, wants a new civil war that could turn Lebanon into a copy of Iraq. The challenge now is to find a political compromise that would give the Shi'ites broader representation and allow the government to function.