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12/13/2006
HOPES FOR AGREEMENT FADE IN LEBANON
CATEGORY: Middle East

The proposal by Arab League members that was accepted “in principle” by both sides in the Lebanese cabinet crisis appears to be unravelling as the opposition led by Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah is balking at one of the major items contained in the agreement.

The proposal, similar to one offered by Prime Minister Siniora weeks ago, would expand the cabinet from 24 to 29 members and grant the opposition 9 ministries while giving the March 14th Forces 19 slots. The remaining member would be chosen by the opposition, subject to approval by the majority, and would be a non voting minister, thus preserving the government’s supermajority and preventing Hizbullah from blocking government actions.

In addition, the Arab League plan calls for the resignation of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, a new Presidential election, and the approval of legislation that would authorize the International Tribunal looking into the Hariri assassination.

It is the last item that Nasrallah and his patron in Damascus are balking at. Nasrallah still wants a blocking minority (10) ministers in any new unity government so that efforts to pass the Tribunal agreement with the UN will be stifled. Siniora refuses to give up on the majority that was voted in by the Lebanese people. As if to emphasize this point, Siniora’s cabinet yesterday approved enabling legislation for the Tribunal and sent it on to Parliament for final passage despite President Lahoud’s claim that any action by the cabinet on the Tribunal was unconstitutional. Since Lahoud did not act on the initial approval by the cabinet, it was returned and has now been approved and passed on to the legislature.

Unfortunately, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, a leading member of the opposition, is refusing to call Parliament into session in order to approve the legislation. And there seems to be no way that the March 14th majority can legally get around Berri’s refusal. For the moment, the Tribunal hangs in limbo awaiting a resolution of the cabinet crisis.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa is still hopeful that an agreement can be reached:

The cabinet move coincided with the arrival of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa in Beirut for another round of talks with the feuding camps in an attempt to defuse the rising tensions.

“There is hope… but we are only beginning,” Moussa told reporters after a first round of talks with Saniora and Berri.

Moussa also met later Tuesday with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and MP Saad Hariri.

“There is an optimistic atmosphere,” Moussa told the daily As Safir late in the evening.
“I’m holding on to hope and to the will of the Lebanese to overcome the crisis,” As Safir on Wednesday quoted Moussa as saying.

Moussa’s visit followed that of Arab League envoy Mustafa Ismail who is trying to mediate between the Saniora government and the Hizbullah-led coalition.

Abu Kais has some interesting thoughts about Nasrallah’s position:

It is perhaps too early to discuss the so-called Arab initiative, which has reportedly won Hizbullah’s and Assad’s support. That this “breakthrough” was announced in Damascus, and not in Beirut, speaks volumes about what these protests were really about…

Assad must think himself important and “yielding influence” again. Only let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is no “deal” yet, and, unlike what some people are already predicting, nobody has been declared winner, especially not Hizbullah, Aoun and the Assad regime.

Indeed, one would think that any agreement that allowed the Tribunal to sit with the cooperation of the Lebanese government would be a huge blow to both Damascus and Nasrallah. Again, despite the best of intentions by the Arab League (who based their formula on proposals aired by the Maronite Church leadership last week) it appears that the two sides are exactly where they were before this initiative began.

And where is that exactly? If you ask Michel Aoun, Christian head of the Free Patriotic Movement and junior partner in Nasrallah’s coalition, the government is close to being overthrown:

Speaking to MBC television station late Tuesday, Aoun upped the tensions with his continued threats to topple the government, saying: “Even though there are many legitimate and nonpeaceful means to topple a government, we are dedicated in toppling this government by peaceful means.”

Despite some of his allies’ refusal to storm the Grand Serail, the former army general said that “the natural tide can carry the demonstrators to the Grand Serail, which is why they increased the metal barriers.”

“Siniora should not take this as a threat but rather a warning, to him and to all those who support him, that the people will not wait much longer for him to step down. They don’t even need encouragement from the leaders.”

Religious and political leaders - many of whom are allied with the Free Patriotic Movement and Hizbullah - have said that breaking into the Serail is a “red line” that the opposition cannot cross.

Aoun is either letting the cat out of the bag by disclosing Hizbullah’s true intentions or he is talking through his oversized hat. If the former - and few put it past Nasrallah to eventually tire of the street protests and initiate “direct action” against the cabinet, holed up now in the Grand Serail for nearly a month - then there will be civil war. But Aoun has been known to exaggerate in the past and his bombastic pronouncements should be taken with a very large dose of salt.

And so the crisis drags on. Meanwhile, Prosecutor Brammertz has issued another report on his investigation into the Hariri assassination which purportedly names names of who was involved. I’ll have some thoughts on this report later so stay tuned for a separate post on the Tribunal.

By: Rick Moran at 8:10 am

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