Lebanese Leaders Meet Across Internal Divide, Seeking Consensus

Two dilapidated Renault 12 automobiles that sped into the parking lot of the Lebanese parliament last week were part of a series of camouflage measures taken recently by Lebanese security forces. One car held Druze member of parliament Walid Jumblatt and the other was filled with security personnel. Jumblatt, a jean-wearing leader of a leftist party, is by no means a poor man and has two Mercedes parked next to his family fortress in Mokhtara. However, for security's sake, he stepped into the decoy car, because this was a case of life and death. Jumblatt had come to Beirut to take part in the "national dialogue." He and other Lebanese political leaders and members of the Lebanese security forces, know that their lives are not secure.

In the same vein, Hassan Nasrallah admitted a few weeks ago that he avoided leaving his home in South Lebanon in order to remove any added burden on his own forces and on the defense forces. Saad Hariri, son of the later prime minister, was until recently abroad for an extended period of time, as a protective measure. But this time, the objective was a bit out of the ordinary. The national dialogue, whose first session was held earlier this month, and whose final session - participants hope - will be held today, aspires to solve the fundamental problems of Lebanese politics, some of which pertain to Israel.

At first glance, every problem stands on its own. Will the term of Emile Lahoud be cut short, and will he be thrown out of his job? What will be the official relationship between Lebanon and Syria? Will Hezbollah be disarmed? Are the Shaba Farms Lebanese or Syrian? What should be done about weapons of Palestinians living outside the refugee camps?

However, all of these issues are bound together in two ways. One has to do with two UN resolutions: Resolution 1559, which calls on Lebanon to disarm all of the unlawful militias, Hezbollah included, and the UN resolution that established the international commission of inquiry to investigate the Hariri assassination and which will be investigating Bashar al-Assad next month. The second way has to do with Lebanon's internal politics and with the chance of restoring the authority and legitimacy of the government, which has been essentially shut down since January. At that time, Hezbollah and Amal representatives suspended their participation in the government, based on the demands by Hariri supporters to bring to justice those accused of assassinating Hariri, if and when they are found, in an international court.

Different interpretation

These differences of opinion are not new, but the attempt to resolve them through dialogue is new and refreshing. Especially when one recalls the poisonous arrows exchanged only a few years ago between Jumblatt - the most aggressive anti-Syrian player in Lebanon, outside of the Hariri family - and Hezbollah. Jumblatt went so far as to publicly declare that Hezbollah no longer had a pretext to attack Israel, because the Shaba Farms were not on Lebanese soil.

The dispute reached the threshold of the parliament two weeks ago, and Jumblatt brought to a meeting of the national dialogue, in which the highest-ranking politicians of Lebanon are taking part (aside from Lahoud, who was not invited) maps intended to prove that Shaba Farms were not Lebanese, but Syrian. Jumblatt accused Syria of passing on maps to Lebanon in 2001 that supposedly portrayed the farms as inside Lebanese territory, in order to grant legitimacy to Hezbollah operations against Israel and to maintain its influence on the organization and on current events in Lebanon. Jumblatt's statements earned him the scorn not only of Hezbollah representatives, but also relatives of the Lebanese prisoners imprisoned in Israel, who wanted to know if he would have said such things about Hezbollah if his son were sitting in an Israeli jail.

But last week, when after lengthy delays the second session finally ended, and residents of central Beirut breathed a sigh of relief after nervous security forces ordered them to remain indoors and not even go out onto their porches, as a preventive security measure, it seemed as if signs of consensus were beginning to crystallize in Beirut.

Jumblatt refrained from his contention that the Shaba Farms were Syrian, thereby joining all of the other participants, who have declared that the Shaba Farms are Lebanese. Presumably, this pronouncement grants Hezbollah license to continue attacking Israel - "until the farms are liberated" - as one of its representatives declared.

Yet this phrasing is not as simple as it sounds. Because the government, which relies on the parliamentary majority of Hariri supporters (the "February 14 Group," named for the day of Hariri's assassination), and Hezbollah have different ideas as to how to restore the farms to Lebanon. The Hariri group seeks to act on two levels: demanding that Syria issue an official document that would confirm that Shaba Farms are Lebanese. The government would submit said document to the UN, which - Hariri supporters hope - would in turn demand that Israel withdraw from the farms after it recognized them as Lebanese territory.

Hezbollah is not against diplomatic action, but argues that it still has the right to continue armed resistance. As the organization sees it, this does not depend only on recognizing Shaba Farms as part of Lebanon, but also on defense and opposition to military operations, including territorial incursions by Israeli warplanes over Lebanese territory.

The real test

It is clear to the Hariri-Jumblatt coalition, as well as to Hezbollah, that if Syria decides to hand over the requested document proving Lebanese possession, there will be no choice but to consider the disarmament of Hezbollah. This is especially true in light of another decision made at the second session, to implement Section 2 of the Taif Accords of 1989 (which ended the civil war), according to which the Lebanese state would "impose the sovereignty of the Lebanese government over all Lebanese land." In other words, even in South Lebanon, which is now controlled by Hezbollah.

At first glance, this is nothing new, but this section has never been implemented before, and the reference to it now might also hint at a real intent to implement, that is, to deny Hezbollah its exclusive hold on the south. Hezbollah is not opposed to the wording of the section, both because it understands that it cannot object to a statement that is supported by all of the political factions, and because it understands that it must offer something in exchange, given the international pressure exerted on Lebanon. Are weapons more important than the political recompense it would receive? This is the dilemma facing Hezbollah, which is influenced by the fate of Emile Lahoud.

If Hezbollah agrees to a trimming of the presidential term of Emile Lahoud - the pro-Syrian president and friend of Hezbollah - the organization may benefit from another grace period during which it could continue to hold onto its weapons. On the other hand, there is no certainty that even if Hezbollah would oppose reduction of the presidential term, the Lebanese government would be able or willing to disarm the organization by force. The real test might come six months from now, on the date agreed upon by the parties to the national dialogue, at which time the Palestinian organizations that operate outside of the twelve refugee camps, are to be disarmed. At issue are weapons that are suspected of having been used in assassination operations. There is no Lebanese supervision of these weapons, and the armed Palestinians evidently receive their instructions from Syria or Iran. The success or failure of this disarmament will determine the next step - disarmament of Hezbollah.

As for the Palestinian weapons inside the refugee camps, it too is in the government's sights, but for the moment is not deemed a threat, because the camps operate as closed enclaves, with the Lebanese army guarding the entrances. The implementation of these decisions may have more to do with the agreement of Syria, where Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora will soon be heading for a historic visit.

The visit will be Siniora's first to Syria since he received a dressing-down from Bashar al-Assad, who termed him a "slave of slaves."

That being the case, we are watching a long row of dominoes which will start to topple in Damascus, pass through the UN and eventually reach Jerusalem, which will have to decide whether it is prepared to accept this move, which would pull it out from the Shaba Farms area, or continue to adhere to its not-a-single-centimeter approach in Lebanon, no matter what the price.