Neighbors / A Country Without a Government

While Israel is sounding the alarm about Hezbollah's rearmament and warning Syria not to send it "balance-breaking" weapons, whereas the organization's leader Hassan Nasrallah is scoffing at Israel, describing it as a dog that is "all bark and no bite," Lebanon continues to function without a government. Even the word "function" is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration - without a prime minister or any other government ministers, there are no projects and no budget management. Nonetheless, the celebrations and festivals carry on as usual and more tourists have come to Lebanon this summer than ever before.

The upshot is that Israel doesn't really have an "address" in Lebanon that it can hold responsible for what goes on on that country's southern border and, more to the point, the citizens of Lebanon have no one running their country.

The reason for this lies in a political dispute that has erupted around one person, whose name is Gebran Bassil. Bassil, the communications minister in the outgoing government, is married to Rosa, the daughter of Christian military commander Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement political party, which has formed an alliance with Hezbollah.

Bassil was a candidate in this past June's parliamentary election, and he lost. However, his defeat has not prevented his father-in-law from demanding that he once again receive the communications portfolio, a task for which he did not demonstrate impressive abiilties in the previous government. His greatest "achievement" was his success in preventing the privatization of the Lebanese mobile phone company, which, among other things, denied considerable income from Fouad Siniora's government, of which he was a member. His other accomplishent was the establishment of media "normalization" with Palestine. Last year he opened Lebanon's communications lines to country code 970 - the dialing code for the territories - and thus for the first time Palestinians in Lebanon were able to make direct calls to their relatives in the territories. Incidentally, the lines from Israel and the territories to Lebanon were opened many years earlier.

In any case, prime minister-elect Saad Hariri is opposed to giving the post to Bassil on the grounds that a ministerial position should not be given to someone who lost in the elections. Though this reasoning has no constitutional basis, it does sound good to the Lebanese public.

Hariri's resistance, however, has reasons that go beyond the murky relationship between him and General Aoun. The formula whereby the new government is to be established determines that the majority bloc, headed by Hariri, will have 15 ministers on its behalf; the minority bloc, whose partners are Hezbollah, Nabih Beri and Aoun's party, will have 10 seats; and the president, Michel Suleiman, will appoint five ministers on his behalf. This structure is intended to ensure balance between the coalition majority and the opposition in a way that the coalition will not have an absolute majority, the opposition will not have the power to impose a veto on government decisions and only the president, whom both sides trust, will be able to decide.

Hence the importance each side is attributing to the political leanings of each of the ministers. A "defection" by just one minister from the opposition lines during a crucial debate - say, on the budget - would suffice to upset the balance and the coalition would be able to chalk up a success. Therefore Hariri prefers someone who isn't necessarily Aoun's devout disciple, who might be ready to "defect" from time to time. Bassil does not fit this criterion.

The problem of manning the portfolios has been exacerbated by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's decision to resign from the majority bloc. Jumblatt, and not for the first time, has displayed his talent for political acrobatics and has shaken up the political mechanism that Hariri is trying to fashion.

Hezbollah is taking full advantage of this fragile situation. It is backing Aoun's demand to appoint Bassil, both because Bassil is an important supporter of Hezbollah and also because his appointment as communications minister would give Hezbollah a great deal of freedom of action in this sensitive area that caused a government crisis two years ago. Moreover, in the meantime Hezbollah can depict itself as not holding up the establishment of the government since Bassil would not be one of its ministers.

Nor is Syria displeased with the delay, since ostensibly it is a matter of "internal Lebanese politics" and this time Damascus can't be blamed for thwarting the establishment of a government. In the end, it is only the citzens of Lebanon - and the State of Israel - that still don't have "a responsible address."

Gaza: We told you so

Tariq Alhomayed, the editor of the London Arabic-language daily Asharq Al Awsat, has once again been able to jab his well-sharpened pen into Hamas. He was not impressed by the Hamas forces' victory over Abdul Latif Mussa's extremist organization Jund Ansar Allah.

"Is what happened in Gaza surprising?" wondered Alhomayed. "Of course not, this was only a surprise to those who were not paying attention and endorsed the Hamas movement, as well as those who accused of treason anybody who described the Hamas coup in Gaza as a mistake and a crime and said that it would lead to the entire Gaza Strip becoming like Afghanistan under the Taliban, which is in fact what happened .... The extremist language used by the Salafist Jihadist group ... is no different than the language used by Hamas against the Fatah movement, from inflammatory language to putting forward accusations of treason and of being agents [of foreign powers]."

Only a few years ago Alhomayed, a respected commentator and a gifted editor, would have found it difficult to have written an article like this one in the Saudi-funded paper, because Saudi Arabia was among the main supporters of Hamas and most of the organization's income came from charitable group operating under the auspices of the Saudi government. However, the Saudis submitted to American pressure to stop the aid to the organization, and Saudi Arabia's influence on Hamas ended, with its place being taken by Iran and Syria. It would be interesting to know whether anyone in Washington or Riyadh has made a reckoning of conscience as to whether it would have been preferable had Saudi Arabia continued to be the benefactor and wield the influence.