Annapolis Blues/ Lebanon’s Political Crisis

Nov 2, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

November 2, 2007
Number 11/07 #02

This Update focuses again on the meeting on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking planned for Annapolis sometime soon.

In Israeli internal debates, there has been considerable scepticism about the prospects of the conference leading to major progress, and apprehension that it might make things worse. Below, explaining the reasons for this scepticism is Yoel Marcus, one of Israel’s best-known columnists. He points out that Israelis are very aware that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, at best, only controls half of the Palestinian territories and, even if he is strengthened by Israeli concessions, there is no guarantee Hamas will not take over the rest. Moreover, Israelis are all too aware of how disengagement from Gaza led to ongoing daily rocket poundings of Israeli towns from there. For his explanation of why Israelis are largely cautious in their expectations, CLICK HERE. More examples of scepticism about Annapolis come from former Parliamentarian and media personality Tommy Lapid,  from several Israeli specialists interviewed by a Canadian newspaper, and, reportedly, from former PM and current Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

Next up, Israeli academic Bruce Maddy-Weitzman looks at the efforts to entice the Arab states to come to the conference and play a positive role in peacemaking. He says the Americans did not expect the Syrians to come and they are unlikely to, while Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are trying to drive a hard bargain, but are likely to agree to play a “supporting role” in the end, because they have little alternative. For his analysis of the situation of the various Arab states, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Washington Institute Syria/Lebanon specialist David Schenker looks in detail at the political crisis in Lebanon over the election of a new president. He examines  the political and constitutional background, the various candidates being considered by both the pro-Western majority government and the Hezbollah-dominated pro-Syrian opposition, and the risks of a collapse into a new civil war. He sees little hope of an internal resolution, and calls for the US and other powers to try to support the democratic majority. For Schenker’s full argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Israel says Hezbollah has tripled its land to sea missiles and rebuilt its military strength, and, according to a UN report, has stockpiled missiles which can reach Tel Aviv. Comment on the Hezbollah build-up comes from former Israeli diplomat Lenny Ben-David.

Not at any price

By Yoel Marcus

Haaretz, 30/10/2007

From here, Annapolis looks like a fata morgana on a sizzling day in the Sahara Desert. Something whitish is visible on the horizon, but you cannot tell who or what it is. Only one thing is clear: There will be some summit, or meeting, or conference at which the parties will discuss an agreement, as close to final as possible, between Israel and the Palestinians. No official name for it has been chosen yet, and no exact date either. At the moment, no invitations have gone out, the guest list is not ready and no agenda has been set.

They are talking about November 26. If not November, than December. And if not December, then after the holidays, either before or after Ehud Olmert’s surgery.

This project is the private initiative of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After the failure of the American offensive in Iraq, she wants to give George Bush a farewell gift, a little something from our neighborhood. Bush’s involvement will not resemble the very deep involvement of presidents Carter and Clinton at Camp David. This meeting is going to be a quickie. An international brief encounter, not an international conference.

The idea is to invite the Europeans, the Russians and any Muslim countries willing to recognize Israel in its 1967 configuration – in short, a multilateral gathering at which Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas star as peacemakers, but in sound bites.

It will be a forum not for negotiations, but for speeches, as well as a summarizing declaration of principles that will serve as a guideline for talks on the establishment of two states for two peoples. The content of the summit will be determined ahead of time, in talks conducted by Rice. If a decision to divide Jerusalem is reached in advance, Olmert will not have all of Jerusalem when he gets up on the dais. The plan is for everything that is said, or not said, at the summit to be worked out beforehand.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has already made it clear that it will demand the right of return. If it persists at this, Saudi Arabia will not be invited to take part in the summit.

There is an essential difference between Rice’s involvement and Bush’s. Rice can be tough with Israel, but only the president can twist Israel’s arm. Bush, who is about to end his presidency without bombing any nuclear reactors in Iran or pulling American troops out of Iraq, wants Olmert to be prime minister of a secure Israel. Rice has instructions from Bush not to pressure Olmert into doing anything he thinks will endanger Israel’s security.

President Bush is sticking to the principle of two states for two peoples living side by side. His road map begins with a Palestinian commitment to halt terror, but also with an Israeli commitment to dismantle settlements. There will be no international summit or encounter without a draft that sums up the core issues in the conflict in a manner acceptable to both sides.

Israel agrees to these rules. The trouble is that, in practice, any agreement that Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas sign at Annapolis will obligate only half of Palestine. Abbas will be stronger in the eyes of the world, but not in the eyes of most of his people. The Israeli public does not have the strength, emotional or otherwise, for another dummy compromise with the Palestinians.

What happened after the withdrawal from Gush Katif, with its removal of settlers by force, has left us deeply wounded and disappointed over the outcome of efforts to set aside the dream of a Greater Israel and shrink the power of the extremists in the settler camp. Sderot and other towns near Gaza have not enjoyed a moment’s peace. It is hard to believe that a country as powerful as Israel is just sitting there and watching its cities being pounded by rockets day after day, year after year. Would Ariel Sharon go to Annapolis under such conditions?

Mahmoud Abbas and his aides, dressed in European suits that would even pass muster with a fashion connoisseur like Dalia Itzik, give the impression of seeking peace. But inside, they have not been cured of the chronic disease of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity when it comes to establishing a state of their own, 61 years after the UN Partition Plan.

An agreement on the “core issues” could strengthen weak leaders, but only symbolically. Sooner or later, control of Palestine could fall into Hamas hands. Intelligence sources in Israel are shocked at the transformation of Hamas gangs into a genuine military force in Gaza, complete with uniforms, arms, instructors and Iranian ideology that may soon seep into the West Bank. Collective punishments like electricity cuts are not going to stop them.

The Olmert administration is taking a risk by agreeing to make concessions on core issues in the conflict with the Palestinian Authority. An agreement to which only half the Palestinian people are committed will not be worth the paper it is written on.

Olmert must go to Annapolis as Mr. Peace, but play Mr. Security when he gets there. Annapolis is good, but not at any price.


Slouching Towards Annapolis

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

Tel Aviv Notes, October 30, 2007

Strategists, diplomats and would-be peacemakers in the Palestinian-Israeli arena have always sought to involve neighboring Arab states in the process, sometimes in order to provide political backing to a Palestinian side in need of Arab reinforcement, sometimes to sweeten the deal for Israel, and sometimes even to bypass obstacles created by the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. Next month‚s expected conference in Annapolis, Maryland constitutes the Bush Administration‚s most serious effort to re-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since it assumed power in 2001, on the heels of President Clinton‚s failed efforts and the outbreak of sustained Palestinian-Israeli violence.  According to the American scenario, not only Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel, must be present to lend their symbolic weight to the effort, but also additional Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, as well as parties from outside the region, should attend as well.  A new proposal by senior foreign policy figures from outside the Administration that Annapolis inaugurate a sustained initiative to resolve the conflict also refers to the roles of Arab states, whether in preventing arms smuggling, including Syria and Hamas in the dialogue, or giving credence to the principles contained in the Arab summit‚s peace initiative (New York Review of Books, November 8, 2007).  But what do the Arab states think about the roles being assigned to them?

Uniformly, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia,  America’s three main Arab allies, have adopted a low public profile as they wait to see the nature of the Annapolis gathering.   Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been less than enthusiastic about lending a hand to the effort, given its skepticism that the meeting will begin alleviating the plight of the Palestinians in the territories.  With their public opinions being extremely hostile to the US, a premature embrace of an American-sponsored process could prove to be more than embarrassing.  For Riyadh, a return to the Madrid formula of steps towards normalization with Israel requires Israeli reciprocity.  Thus, the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians have all sought guarantees from the Americans that Annapolis would be more than just a photo op.  Not only must it produce immediate and tangible Israeli concessions, such as the freezing of settlement building, the dismantling of illegal outposts, the release of prisoners and the removal of checkpoints, it also must demonstrate intent to achieve a final and comprehensive settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict within a reasonable and agreed upon time frame, and include clear dates for the commencement of negotiations and a coherent follow-up mechanism with a visible role for the UN.

At the outset, the US had no interest in involving Syria in the Annapolis gathering, given the fact that Bashar al-Asad’s regime had placed itself opposed to the US on nearly every important regional issue – Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian-Israeli arena.  However, Washington ultimately accepted the entreaties of its Arab allies, issuing an invitation, albeit a distinctly lukewarm one, to Damascus, in its capacity as a member of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee, while making it clear that the focus of Annapolis would be the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.  In a further sop to Arab sensibilities, it appears likely that whatever declaration comes out of the Annapolis meeting will include references to the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese negotiation tracks.  For Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, this should be sufficient, providing cover against possible charges from Syria that they were abandoning it in the face of American and Israeli diktats.  In actuality, Bashar Asad is viewed extremely critically in all three capitals, thanks to his deepening alliance with Iran, his support for the Lebanese Hizballah, which contributed to the destruction in Lebanon during the summer 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, likely Syrian complicity in the murder of Lebanon‚s prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and Syria‚s continued violent meddling in Lebanese politics.  Saudi-Syrian relations, in particular, are currently at an unprecedented low.  In other words, in strategic terms, Syria continues to stand apart from, and even opposite to the deeply held concerns among Sunni Arab states regarding ascending Shiite power, backed by Iran, in the region.  Their complete silence in the wake of Israel’s apparent destruction of a secret Syrian military facility last month speaks volumes regarding the depth of the fissure between them and Damascus.

Nonetheless, neither Syria nor the Saudi-Egyptian-Amman triumvirate seek to entirely burn the bridges to one another, even if they differ over attendance at the Annapolis conference.  Syria will not agree to the token standing being offered at Annapolis, and will attend only if its interests are to be squarely addressed.  Will it seek to actually sabotage the meeting?  Signaling that it can do so, Damascus has begun preparing to host a counter-gathering, with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other anti-Fatah Palestinian groups.  PA President Mahmud Abbas, who is working hard to bolster his shaky position vis-a-vis Hamas via backing from Arab states, has already beseeched Damascus not to seek to undermine the Annapolis conference, and participating Arab governments can be expected to do the same.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also trying to avoid antagonizing Syria as they seek to resolve Lebanon‚s political deadlock by finding a compromise candidate, apparently commander of the army Gen. Michael Suleiman, for the post of president.  Failure to peacefully resolve the Lebanese impasse would mark one more blow to the already largely hollow notion of collective Arab action.  Conversely, Egypt, long the self-styled leader of the Arab world, would be delighted to achieve a diplomatic success there.

US standing in the region, both among governments and societies, has suffered considerable damage in recent years, as a result of the Iraq war and its support for Israel.  Traditionally pro-American Arab regimes are therefore understandably reluctant to get behind the initiative of an American administration which has made resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a lower priority than other more pressing matters. Moreover, they too have myriad important issues on their regional and domestic agendas.  But neither do they desire to appear before American public opinion or the US Congress as placing undue obstacles in the way of Annapolis.  Hence, while not being optimistic, they appear to have little choice but to play a supporting role. Their best hope remains for a conference that loosens the Palestinian-Israeli logjam. If this does come to pass, their presence will restore at least a bit of luster to the tattered image of the Arab collective as being impotent and helpless – not a bad thing, domestically or regionally.

Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University. His most recent book was Palestinian and Israeli Intellectuals in the Shadow of Oslo and Intifadat al-Aqsa  (2002),


Presidential Elections in Lebanon: Consensus or Conflagration?

By David Schenker

PolicyWatch #1299
November 1, 2007

On October 31, Saad Hariri, leader of the “March 14” majority bloc in the Lebanese parliament, met with opposition leader Michel Aoun, head of the Hizballah-allied Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the largest Maronite Christian party in Lebanon. Discussions focused on the September 25-November 25 presidential elections, which will decide whether Lebanon’s next chief executive will align with the pro-Western, reform-minded March 14 coalition or follow the path of current president Emile Lahoud and align with Syria. Despite increasing pressures on the March 14 forces — including an apparent Syrian-orchestrated assassination campaign — a breakthrough agreement between the majority and the opposition remains unlikely. Meanwhile, Hizballah has warned the March 14 bloc that if it does not compromise on the choice of president, the opposition will adopt a “more direct” approach.

In the aftermath of the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw its forces, and the March 14 bloc won the parliamentary elections and formed a government. The government coalition included Hizballah ministers, but differences quickly emerged, primarily over the prospective international tribunal to prosecute Hariri’s killers. In November 2006, Hizballah’s ministers essentially quit after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora requested UN assistance to establish the tribunal, and tensions have been high ever since.

The March 14 bloc states it has only two presidential candidates: former parliamentarian and one-time ambassador to the United States Nassib Lahoud, and current parliamentarian Boutros Harb. The opposition — a coalition of Hizballah, Amal, and the FPM — rejects both candidates. Although Hizballah has not yet articulated its favored candidate, Aoun — whose coalition dominated the Maronite vote in 2005, winning twenty-two parliamentary seats — has made it clear that no president other than himself would be acceptable.

Constitutional Issues
The confessional system in Lebanon mandates that the president be a Maronite Christian, but there are differing interpretations of what the constitution states regarding the election process. The parliament elects the president — at issue is whether a two-thirds quorum is required to proceed with a vote if a president has not been elected ten days before the end of the previous president’s term. The March 14 bloc argues that the quorum is not required; the opposition says it is. The interpretation is crucial because the majority currently holds just 68 of 127 seats. Lebanon lacks an independent supreme court to adjudicate these issues. The constitution originally established a “constitutional council” within parliament to “arbitrate conflicts that arise from parliamentary and presidential elections.” But this council, which was never more than a consultative body, is now defunct.

Three articles of the constitution support the majority’s interpretation of the quorum requirement. Article 34 states, “The Chamber is not validly constituted unless the majority of the total membership is present. Decisions are to be taken by a majority vote.” According to Article 49(2), “The President of the Republic shall be elected by secret ballot and by a two thirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies. After a first ballot, an absolute majority shall be sufficient.” And finally, Article 73 states that the parliament should be summoned by the Speaker one to two months before the president’s term expires or, failing that, should meet “of its own accord on the tenth day preceding the expiration of the President’s term of office.”

Presently, the opposition is boycotting parliament to prevent the establishment of a quorum. Per Article 73, however, the legislature will automatically be called to session on November 15, obviating the quorum requirement and setting the stage for elections by an absolute majority.

Aoun and the Patriarch
Concerned about divisions in Lebanon’s Christian community and the dilution of Christian political power, Maronite patriarch Boutros Sfeir has met with leading opposition figures from his community in recent weeks, including Aoun. During one such meeting, Sfeir encouraged an end to Maronite participation in the boycott. For his part, Aoun told the patriarch that the March 14 bloc’s intention to elect a president by a strict majority constituted “a war on the Christians.” Although discussions about compromise continue, Aoun does not appear to be interested in throwing his support behind another Christian candidate who might be more acceptable to the majority. As he told his party’s Orange TV on October 8, “[A]ll the statistics have given me the upper hand, so why should I transfer the support of the people for someone else?”

Compromise Candidates and Scenarios
Interestingly, Hizballah — which entered into a political alliance with Aoun in February 2006 — has not been a vocal proponent of his presidential ambitions. Indeed, it seems likely that the group is considering other “compromise” candidates. Some of the leading contenders in this category include current Central Bank governor Riad Salemeh, former foreign minister Jean Obeid, current parliamentarian Robert Ghanem, and former parliamentarians Fares Boueiz and Pierre Dakkash.

Other so-called compromise candidates include Michel Edde, a former cabinet minister and self-professed expert on Jewish affairs. In one scenario, Edde, who is eighty years old, would step down from the six-year post after just two years, keeping Aoun’s presidential hopes alive. Current Lebanese armed forces chief of staff Michel Suleiman is another much-discussed candidate. Although he may be acceptable to Syria and Hizballah, many in the March 14 bloc are wary of the prospect of yet another general in power. Leading March 14 personality and Druze leader <http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC07.php?CID=360>Walid Jumblatt has already told Suleiman that he would oppose his candidacy — which would, in any event, require a constitutional amendment permitting an official of his seniority to stand for the presidency without the mandated two-year waiting period.

The Suleiman option could prove more appealing if the situation in Beirut degenerates, particularly if the majority elects a no-compromise president who is not recognized by the opposition. Should that happen, lame duck president Lahoud could conceivably appoint another government, leaving chaos in the wake of his departure. In this scenario, Suleiman might be seen as the sole means to avert civil war. Still another plausible scenario is that no election takes place. In that case, according to Article 62 of the constitution, the cabinet — i.e., the March 14 coalition ministers led by Siniora — would “exercise . . . the powers of the President.”

Given the majority’s antipathy for Aoun, Hizballah, and Syria, it is difficult to envision an acceptable compromise candidate emerging. Of course, if Saad Hariri decides to replace Siniora and become prime minister himself, the calculus could change. Hariri has said that he will not compromise, but his premiership would represent a shift from a technocratic to a political government. Should he pursue the office, Hariri may have to cede more cabinet seats to political enemies. He could also face increased pressures to compromise on the presidency.

Lebanon’s majority government faces a Faustian choice. If it elects its president of choice, civil disobedience or a resumption of civil war might result. At the same time, a pro-Syrian “compromise” president could delay or derail the international Hariri tribunal, undermine government initiatives, and effectively end the Cedar Revolution. Regardless of what happens, March 14 parliamentarians are convinced that the Syrian campaign of assassinations will not end.

To date, other than repeated calls for noninterference by outside actors, Washington has not publicly weighed in on the elections. In August, President Bush signed an executive order blocking the property of persons undermining Lebanese sovereignty, a step that effectively dried up U.S.-based funding for Aoun. Other than that, the administration has taken few other measures to shore up its embattled allies. Regrettably, short of confronting Damascus, Washington’s options are limited. Given the impending postelection crisis and the persistent threat to the pro-Western government, it is time for Washington to craft a policy that can help protect its allies. Given the March 14 bloc’s attrition rate, it is unclear how many more crises it can endure.

David Schenker is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as country director for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.


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