It would seem that Syria suffered a major defeat last week with the formation of a Lebanese national unity government.
Syria has for years fought long and hard to keep Lebanon under its thumb, but in 2004, with the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, its influence took a big hit. At the time, the murder was attributed to pro-Syrian elements, and subsequent universal condemnation from Western and Arab powers alike forced Damascus to pull its troops from Lebanese soil.
Five years later, on June 7, 2009, Saad Hariri, the son of the slain prime minister, won a clear victory in the Lebanese elections.
And now, five months after that success, Hariri was finally able to form a "national unity government," albeit only after intense international pressure and lengthy negotiations succeeded in bringing together representatives of the majority and opposition parties.
Is Beirut slipping away from Damascus? The truth is not that simple and not that rosy.
Opposition parties will have 10 ministers in the new government, or a third of the total. Two of these ministers belong to Hizbullah, an organization taking its orders from Iran. Though the organization is legal, per se, its militia is not, and should have been disbanded long ago as demanded by the Taef agreements which put an end to the Lebanese civil war.
Hizbullah has resisted all calls for disarmament, and is in fact doing the exact opposite by steadily building up its strength. It is trying to obtain new weapons which would tip the delicate regional balance, such as ground-to-air missiles with the capacity of downing planes, and it has already acquired some 40,000 missiles which could reach nearly all of Israel. Armament and ammunition are still streaming in over the porous Syrian border, and the Lebanese army has yet to confront the action for fear of clashes with Syria or Hizbullah.
All of the above is, of course, a flagrant violation of resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
Even before Hizbullah was officially included in the most recent Lebanese cabinet, Israel stated repeatedly that the responsibility for any attack on its territory carried out by the organization would rest squarely on that government, and that Lebanon as a whole would suffer the consequences.
WHAT, IF anything, will the new government be able to do to change this dangerous state of affairs? It is true that the June elections were fair and democratic, and that the Sunni-Christian-Druze coalition won 71 of the 128 seats of parliament, with the remaining 57 falling to the Shi'ite Hizbullah and Amal, and a breakaway Christian faction led by Michel Aoun. However, Hizbullah made it clear that it would oppose - by force if necessary - any government in which the opposition would have no part.
The group also issued significant demands. A third of the ministers must come from the ranks of the opposition, Hizbullah insisted, and the opposition must be granted veto power over all decisions. These stipulations would have given Hizbullah and its allies control over all important actions, as well as preventing the government from disarming the organization, investigating its links with Iran and the presence of revolutionary guards in Lebanon, cooperating with the international tribunal set up to probe the murder of Rafik Hariri, and more.
Saad Hariri is well aware of the fact that the Lebanese army is no match for Hizbullah, which took over west Beirut in 2008 in order to force then prime minister Fuad Saniora to set up a national unity government in which the opposition had a third of the seats. He also knows the problems of a country where a mosaic of communities and religions is kept in a state of fragile equilibrium. Were the Shi'ite community - the largest in Lebanon - not to be represented in the government, he would not have a moment's peace.
Therefore, when President Michel Suleiman asked him to form the new government, Hariri immediately declared that he would do his utmost to include the opposition. He added, however, that he would not grant the veto power they wanted - hence the need for long and difficult negotiations. The first compromise left the majority parties with only 15 ministers while granting the opposition 10, with the remaining five seats being appointed by president Suleiman, who, although very sympathetic to Syria, is generally considered to be fairly neutral.
Thus Hariri, who had a parliamentary majority but only 50% of the ministers, would not be able to affect major change, which would require a two-third majority.
And still opposition parties were not satisfied. Despite their victory, they kept demanding not only veto power but also the right to choose their portfolios and to name the ministers. Hariri refused to yield to what he perceived as unreasonable conditions posed by parties which had, after all, lost the elections.
Matters came to a head when Michel Aoun insisted that his son-in-law - who had failed to get himself elected - be given the ministry of communications. This ministry is of special importance because Hizbullah has set up a network of its own, which the ministry is expected to try and regulate.
Further complicating the situation, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a key ally of Hariri, decided to take his party out of the coalition. He stated, however, that he would not act against the new government, but would rather take part in it while not necessarily guaranteeing his automatic support.
At that point the situation seemed hopeless. Outside intervention was clearly needed. Together with moderate Arab countries, the world rallied to the cause, attempting to convince Syria to pressure its Lebanese allies to tone down their demands. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who had shunned Syria since Rafik Hariri was murdered, invited Bashar Assad to visit his country, and later visited Damascus himself; France and the United States sent emissaries to Syria; and finally, the emir of Qatar made a special trip to Teheran and, according to unconfirmed reports, convinced the Iranians to agree to the proposed list of ministers, thus paving the way to the formation of a government while keeping veto power out of the hands of the opposition.
WHO OR what finally clinched the deal? It's hard to say. What is clear is that Hizbullah - aided and abetted by Syria and Iran - blocked for five months the formation of a government which had the majority support of a parliament elected in free and democratic elections. Such was the way two countries belonging to the so-called, "Axis of Evil" were able to decide the fate of Lebanon, regardless of the will of the people.
Saad Hariri has won an important battle, but he is under no illusion as to where the real power lies. In his speech announcing the formation of the government, he emphasized the need for national unity in order to deal with the country's pressing social and economic problems. Lebanon is still wrestling with the aftermath of the civil war of the '70s, as well as with the repercussions of the Second Lebanon War. Hariri added that while his country would stand firm against Israel, he would not let an operation initiated by Hizbullah and its supporters spark another war.
The new government made the formulation of its political program its first priority, but will that program include ridding Hizbullah of its weapons? Observers believe that there will be nothing to provoke a crisis with the organization. Most probably, the government will state that "resistance movements" - a euphemism for Hizbullah - have the right to defend the country against foreign aggression (i.e. Israel), but that the subject of the organization's arms will be discussed within the framework of the "national dialogue," as was done in the past.
However, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who was speaking at the same time as Hariri, warned the government not to tackle issues endangering national unity. He also threatened to destroy Israel's army, but declared he had no intention of starting a war. He talked at length about Israel, and about relations with Iran and with Turkey - which he congratulated for the distinctly cooler tone used against Israel. His remarks were a blatant interference by the leader of an illegal militia in affairs better left to the government.
In another sign of lingering Syrian influence, as soon as Hariri announced that he had formed a government, Michel Suleiman - without waiting for the formal ratification by the parliament - traveled to Damascus. It is expected that Hariri himself will do the same after that formal ratification.
Hariri will have to govern wisely in order to initiate much needed economic reforms, but how free will he be? Can he ignore the troubled political situation in his country and in the region? What about UN Security Council's resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701 demanding that Hizbullah give up its weapons? What about the continued flow of arms to the organization coming from Syria? And what of the organization's not-so-secret intention to attack Israel, yet again, no matter what the cost for Lebanon?
While the new prime minister is tackling local problems, he may discover yet that decisions taken in Damascus or Teheran will make a mockery of his efforts and wreak havoc upon Lebanon.
The writer is the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Sweden.