March 10, 2007
Not Quite Ready to Dance the Dabke in LebanonBy Rick Moran
The traditional folk dance of Lebanon is called the Dabke, or literally "stomping of the feet" - a descriptive that refers to the communal nature of the dance and the fact that it is most often performed at joyous occasions like weddings. As in other traditional folk dances like the Jewish Hora, it's purpose is to unite the celebrants with feelings of nationhood while drawing on the emotional power of the community and family.
For the Lebanese people, who have endured 3 months of being on the edge of civil war, teetering over the abyss while the politicians have exchanged bitter and personal denunciations of each other, recent events have given them hope that soon, the political impasse that has led to strife and bloodshed will be broken and they can dance the dabke with abandon.
Yesterday, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri of the opposition Amal Party sat down with Said Hariri, leader of the majority March 14th coalition for talks aimed at resolving the crisis. What made the meeting so significant was that it was the first time in months that the two sides sat in the same room, face to face, to discuss a way to cut the Gordian knot of sectarian differences that threatens to plunge the country into the unimaginable tragedy of civil conflict.
In a nutshell, Hezb'allah has been in the streets since December 1 calling on the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to resign or to give the Shia parties enough ministries in the cabinet so that they would have veto power over measures they dislike. And the measure they most definitely want to see vetoed is the establishment of an international tribunal, authorized by the United Nations and approved by the Security Council, to try the assassins of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Quite simply, Siniora refuses these demands on the very practical grounds that his coalition received roughly 2/3 of the vote in the last Parliamentary elections and giving the opposition veto power over the decisions of the majority would be tantamount to nullifying the election. Hezb'allah's real game is to act as a cat's paw for Syria, who desperately wants to stop the tribunal from sitting since it is clear from the 2 year investigation by UN special prosecutors that responsibility for Hariri's death extends to the highest levels of the Syrian government.
The very highest levels.
The prospect of a tribunal has President Bashar Assad of Syria so spooked that during a phone conversation with his friend and partner President Ahmadinejad, he lost his temper when the Iranian came out in favor of seating the international body. The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyassah reported on Wednesday that "Assad became enraged and launched into an angry tirade, cursing the Iranians at the end of the conversation."
Why would Ahmadinejad break with his ally over an issue that Assad feels so strongly about? The fact is, the Iranian president has his own agenda with Hezb'allah and Lebanon. Right now, it will be in Iran's best interests to help get the best deal possible for Hezb'allah and end the crisis that is threatening the Lebanese economy as well as political stability in the country. Neither Ahmadinejad nor Hezb'allah's leader Hassan Nasrallah desires a civil war. And if they can get a much larger presence in the cabinet without having to bother with messy democratic details like elections, it is time to pick up their winnings and leave the table a winner.
Hence, the meeting between Berri and Hariri and the start of the endgame for the two sides. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been extremely active in trying to work out a compromise solution that will get Hezb'allah off the streets of Beirut - where they've been since December 1, strangling the economy and causing jitters among foreign investors who are waiting to pour more than $7 billion into rebuilding the country so devastated by the war with Israel last summer. Abdullah's close relationship with Siniora as well as being Lebanon's number one financier gives him a unique position that enables him to work with both sides while acting as a go between for Siniora to President Assad.
Up to this point, Assad has absolutely refused any compromise that includes the sitting of the tribunal. But he is alone now, having been abandoned in that position by his erstwhile ally Ahmadinejad whose recent visit to Saudi Arabia underscores Assad's growing isolation. It is not known whether Ahmadinejad gave the go ahead for the tribunal at that meeting but his subsequent phone conversation with Assad would seem to indicate he has at least dropped his objections to it. This could mean a relatively quick end to the crisis if some face saving deal on the tribunal can be worked out that would satisfy Nasrallah. In the past, some ideas for such a deal included a substantial representation of Lebanese judges on the tribunal or limiting the scope of its mandate.
In the meantime, the diplomatic dance continues behind the scenes with King Abdullah and the Arab League in the lead. It should be noted that Abdullah is acting with the full blessing and support of the United States who have quietly urged the Saudis to take a more active and forceful role in combating the influence of Iran in the region. The Saudi King hasn't shied away from this task, becoming more active in brokering peace in the Palestinian conflict between Hamas and Fatah while also taking a more pro-active role in Iraq with the Sunnis. You can say what you wish about Saudi support for ultra-conservative Wahabbists in the region but the fact is, the King is performing very well in this expanded role.
And Washington has not been idle either. When George Bush took office, aid to Lebanon amounted to around $35 million. This year, in keeping with our pledges made at the recently concluded Paris Roundtable on aid to Lebanon, the President is asking Congress for $770 million which would make Lebanon the third largest recipient of US aid per capita. This is an amount that Iran can't come close to matching. Clearly, Lebanon has become one of the most important Middle Eastern countries to American interests.
As if to underscore that point, the canny old Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt paid a visit to Washington a few weeks ago and sat down with President Bush for an extraordinary 35 minute, face to face meeting. In contrast, the President met with Prime Minister Olmert for 45 minutes on his recent trip to Washington. There is little doubt the passionate Jumblatt impressed on Mr. Bush the continued support of the United States for the government of Prime Minister Siniora was vital to maintaining Lebanon's independence.
But the United States is severely limited in exactly what kind of diplomatic help we can supply Beirut given Siniora's sensitivity to the opposition charges of being in the pocket of France and the US. Thus, our quiet and effective support of King Abdullah, backing up his efforts to resolve the crisis while working behind the scenes with other regional actors to bolster support for Siniora's government.
While the meeting between Berri and Hariri didn't solve anything, there is no doubt that there has been positive movement. There appears to be agreement that the March 14th forces will be granted 19 ministers in an expanded 30 member cabinet with the Hezb'allah led opposition allowed 10 posts. The sticking point involves the issue of who will name the "11th" minister? That minister is supposed to be "neutral" - a near impossibility in a country so divided. Hezb'allah says that they will name the "neutral" minister. But just recently, Abdullah got Ahmadinejad to sign off on a plan that would have the Saudi King naming that minister. This sits well with his good friend Prime Minister Siniora but didn't go down well with the opposition.
The important thing, as Hariri points out, is that both sides recognize the fact that they need each other to rule. ""We can only accept the no victor, no vanquished formula," the son of the martyred ex-Prime Minister said yesterday. Can Nasrallah find the statesmanship to agree? He has gone out on a very long limb by proclaiming early in the crisis that his people would be in the streets until the government fell. He is finding it very hard to find his way back from that position. It appears, however, that his partner Mr. Berri is willing to act as a bridge between the opposition and the majority. Given the determination of the two men to come to an agreement, this bodes well for the near future.
Coaxing Hezb'allah back into the government will not solve Lebanon's problems. A new electoral law must be drafted and Presidential elections held. There's the issue of the small spit of land called Shebaa Farms currently occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon. And the issues raised by the sitting of the Hariri tribunal will almost certainly affect the effort to normalize relations with its powerful and intrusive neighbor Syria. There is war reconstruction to think of, economic reforms promised to the Paris Roundtable to enact, and the stickiest problem of all - how to get the guns away from Hezb'allah without starting a civil war.
Daunting tasks all. But first things first. And before the people can celebrate, the forces that threaten to tear the country apart must be harnessed and turned towards building a future where all Lebanese regardless of sect can enjoy independence and freedom.
Rick Moran is the proprietor of Rightwing Nuthouse and a frequent contributor to American Thinker.