- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 19, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon.

This is a relatively small country, approximately the size of Rhode Island. Yet, it comes with problems larger than Texas.

After years of relative calm and prosperity that followed a devastating 15-year civil war, Lebanon finds itself once again sitting on a tinderbox with a very short fuse. And there seems to be no shortage of instigators only too happy to strike that first match that would make Lebanon go up in smoke.

The latest political spat tearing apart the country’s opposing politico-religious groups arose over the issue of whether or not to proceed with an international tribunal empowered to judge suspects implicated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri and about 20 other people were killed on Feb. 14, 2005, when a powerful bomb was detonated as his convoy drove past in the downtown area Hariri had rebuilt and in which he took great pride.

The murder of Hariri occurred not long after he confronted Syrian President Bashar Assad, and spoke out against Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. Part of the disagreement between Hariri and Mr. Assad was over Syria’s proposal to amend the Lebanese constitution and allow President Emile Lahoud to run another half term. After Hariri’s murder, many accusing fingers immediately pointed toward the Syrian capital.

The Lebanese government headed by current Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Hariri loyalist, would like to see the tribunal established, the trial move forward and those found guilty brought to justice. Better make that the Lebanese government minus the country’s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. And less a handful of pro-Syrian Cabinet ministers, mainly from the Shi’ite Hezbollah bloc and their co-religionist colleagues from Amal.

“Lebanon’s problem is that we live in a bad neighborhood,” a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington likes to say half-jokingly. But a Lebanese journalist takes it one step further. “We are the bad neighborhood. We have become the bad neighborhood,” he said while dining in one of Beirut’s finer restaurants.

But one should not be fooled by appearances. Lebanon, being Lebanon, the fine dining and good wines are still readily available and reservations for a table in a popular upscale restaurant is a must, amid prevailing political tension or not. In past times of crises, one could feel the tension; now the tension in the Lebanese capital is practically visible.

Lebanon and the Lebanese have always been very skillful in adapting to extraneous circumstances. Living in the bad neighborhood — or, as is more likely the case this time, being the bad neighborhood — is just one of those circumstances you have to deal with when you are a small country surrounded by far bigger or more powerful states, some of which do not hold your best interests in mind. It’s the law of the jungle.

Following the resignation of the Shi’ite government ministers, Syria’s allies declared Mr. Siniora’s government was now “illegitimate” and could not pass the ruling on the tribunal. President Lahoud conveyed a message to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stressing that the plan to establish the tribunal had not received his approval. Therefore, said the president, the ruling was “invalid,” “null and void,” and “nonexistent.”

Not so, replied the prime minister, basing his arguments on the Lebanese constitution.

Mr. Lahoud, whose presidential term was extended through direct Syrian intervention, called “illegitimate” the Cabinet session that gave the green light to the tribunal, given the absence of six pro-Syrian members of the Cabinet. “The president has the sole authority to lead negotiations on international treaties and to ratify them in coordination with the prime minister,” said Mr. Lahoud.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Mr. Annan said he plans to present to the Security Council within the next 24 hours a plan authorizing a special court to try the suspects implicated in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister. In New York, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric indicated the United Nations is “moving ahead with the process.” The project will most certainly pass.

Washington has also weighed in on the issue, calling for quick Security Council action to approve the plan. The U.N. commission established to probe into the murder of Hariri and 14 other prominent Lebanese politicians and journalists found a number of senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials implicated in what appears to be a far-reaching conspiracy. Syrian officials, including Mr. Assad, have denied any involvement.

Plots, counterplots, assassinations and politics on a scale that would make Machiavelli’s prince shudder with apprehension. Throw in Hezbollah’s threats to take their grievances to the streets, a very dangerous endeavor given that it could be the spark that ignites the tinderbox.

As the former ambassador in Washington so aptly said, “We live in a bad neighborhood.” I am sure he was not referring to his posh Embassy Row residence.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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