Neighbors / The 13th Time's a Charm?

Despite the agreement that General Michel Suleiman will be Lebanon?s next president, much stands in the way of appointing a new leader.

Some in Lebanon raised an eyebrow last week when French President Nicolas Sarkozy stood alongside Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and declared that Paris is cutting its contacts with Syria until Syria keeps its promise to assist in the appointment of a Lebanese president. Three days later, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview with the Lebanese television station NBN that contact between Syria and France woulisd continue.

What does Nasrallah know that he isn't sharing?

"Both France and Syria understand these contacts give them joint diplomatic leverage, and therefore they can't give them up," a Lebanese commentator told Haaretz. "The relationship between France and Syria has given France a monopoly on the Syrian-Lebanese connection, while these contacts are likely to rescue Syria from its international isolation. Without France, Syria will continue to be under the hammer of the Americans, whereas without Syria, France will be unable to complete its mission in Lebanon."

In fact, it turned out that Nasrallah, as usual, was right. Even after the severed ties announcement, phone conversations continued between Sarkozy's representatives and the Syrian foreign minister. The result could be heard on Sunday, when the foreign ministers of the Arab League convened for consultation in advance of U.S. President George W. Bush's Israel visit. They presented a new proposal for the appointment of a Lebanese president, which does not favor any side in the political conflict and transfers decision-making power to the president. On condition, of course, that a president is appointed. Syria expressed support for the proposal.

How many ministers will Hezbollah have?

What is delaying the appointment of the president, and why, for the 12th time, is the Lebanese parliament unable to hold a session to appoint a president?

Everyone, including Nasrallah and Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri and the majority leader in the Lebanese parliament, agrees army commander General Michel Suleiman will be Lebanon's next president. Formally, all that is needed is a change in article 49 of the constitution, which states that anyone serving in a public position must wait until two years after the end of his term to run for president.

In the past, the constitution has been changed twice under Syrian pressure. First, in order to extend the term of former president Elias Harawi. And a second time when an amendment was passed to enable resigning president Emil Lahoud to be elected to serve, even though it had been less than two years since he ended his term as army commander. In the end, extending Lahoud's term led to the resignation of Rafik Hariri as prime minister, and later to his assassination.

Had Syria been interested in such a constitutional change, it could have brought it about without difficulty. Nabi Beri, the Shi'ite Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, is a Syrian yes-man as well as a partner of Nasrallah. But the problem is not actually changing the constitution, but the question of who will initiate the change: the government or the parliament.

Nasrallah rejected the possibility that the government would initiate the change. As far as he is concerned, the government has not been a legal body since November 2006, when six ministers - including the representatives of Amal and Hezbollah and another minister identified with Hezbollah - resigned from it. Therefore, the government no longer represents all the parliamentary factions and "is nonexistent."

If the government passes a constitutional amendment, it will gain renewed legitimacy. Its earlier decisions, such as the establishment of an international court to judge the murderers of Rafik Hariri, will suddenly become legal; Hezbollah will no longer be able to protect itself with the excuse of illegitimacy. That is why, according to Nasrallah, parliament must be the one to pass the amendment. Majority leader Saad Hariri objects to that because, by doing so, parliament will in effect confirm Nasrallah's claim regarding the illegitimacy of the government.

Alternately, Nasrallah is prepared for another arrangement: establishing a national unity government prior to the appointment of the president, headed by another prime minister instead of Fouad Siniora, or a combined agreement in which Michel Suleiman would be appointed president and immediately order the formation of a national unity government to replace the present one. Herein lies the most sensitive part of the political problem. Nasrallah is demanding that the number of ministers in the government be divided in a way that will give the opposition - which includes Hezbollah, Amal and the bloc of Christian General Michel Aoun - one-third of the ministers plus one. This number will guarantee the opposition the right to veto any government decision it doesn't like since, according to the Lebanese constitution, major decisions require a two-thirds majority.

Saad Hariri is, of course, opposed to that, since he justly anticipates that any government will immediately be paralyzed by the opposition's right to veto, and in particular will make it impossible to adopt the decision to confirm the establishment of an international court to judge his father's murderers, or even to confirm a no less important issue, such as the state budget. In other words, with one-third plus one, Nasrallah will have the power to run the country, to prevent any thought of disarming his organization and perhaps, at some stage, even to decide that the presence of UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force, is unnecessary.

Now the sides will try to reach some kind of an accord, one that will satisfy both Nasrallah and Hariri, the Syrians and the French. One that will reassure the Americans, and most importantly, will let Lebanon to return to life. This is mainly a "mathematical" equation in which the sides and the mediators will have to arrive at a consensual numerical division.

Will the majority in the government have 17 ministers and the opposition 13, and thus have its right to veto? Will there be 15 ministers for the majority, 10 for the opposition and five to be appointed by the president according to an ethnic key? Will it be possible to grant the president broader power to make decisions, thus neutralizing the opposition's right of veto? And who will guarantee that the president himself will not "suddenly" become pro-Syrian? After all, in the past he has already expressed opinions supporting Damascus.

A French area of influence

This is the political tangle that Sarkozy has decided to enter, after liberating himself from the legacy of predecessor Jacques Chirac. Chirac began his campaign in the Levant as a friend of Syria and Lebanon, but after the 2005 murder of Hariri, and even before it when French firm Total lost a tender of about $700 million to develop oilfields in Syria, he became a harsh opponent of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Sarkozy wanted to give Assad another chance. It seems he wanted, and still wants, to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence: The U.S. in Palestine-Saudi Arabia-Iraq, France in Syria and Lebanon. Nor is he giving up Egypt, now that it has become a black sheep in Washington, in large part thanks to Israel.

Sarkozy exploited the time-out provided by the preparations for Annapolis, and "invaded" Syria. Washington agreed with almost no choice. The Annapolis conference was about to suffer a stunning failure if the foreign ministers of the Arab countries did not attended. These ministers conditioned their arrival on the appearance of the Syrian foreign minister, or at least his representative. Washington gritted its teeth and explained the invitation to Syria by saying that it may enable the severance of Syria from Iran.

The excuses were in order, but Syria had other considerations. It has not given up on Lebanon, and believed that if it participated in Annapolis and made some gestures, Washington would allow it a free hand in Lebanon. The gestures were made: The Palestinian factions opposed to Annapolis were prevented from convening in Damascus, terrorists were barred entry to Iraq and the Bush plan in Iraq and other gestures toward Iraqi refugees received support.

Washington even agreed to stop sending American delegates to Beirut to express support for Hariri's group, in order to allow France to fulfill its mission undisturbed. Syria was proven wrong. Nobody has as yet granted it a free hand in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, France was left in open disagreement with Syria. Now in Lebanon they are suspiciously examining the declarations by Israeli ministers, and particularly by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, on the intention to remove Syria from the "axis of evil." In Lebanon they are certain that Israel prefers an arrangement with Syria at Lebanon's expense, the kind that would leave in Syrian hands not only control over Lebanese politics, but control over Hezbollah as well; all the rest is unimportant. In Beirut, they are afraid that, as far as Israel is concerned, Lebanon can go to hell.