- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

BEIRUT | Nearly two months after parliamentary elections, Lebanon is finally forming a new Cabinet, and events elsewhere in the region are sending ripples of both anxiety and hope through a country long buffeted by foreign disputes.

On Tuesday, Israeli Defense Forces deployed troops near Shebaa Farms, an area disputed by Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and Lebanese armed forces went on high alert. Two weeks ago, an explosion rocked Khirbet Slim, a village nine miles north of the border with Israel.

Fears of war are never far from the surface here three years after a monthlong conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group, killed hundreds of people and left millions of dollars in damage.

The irony is that some Lebanese thought the chances of war had been reduced following the June 7 elections, when, contrary to many predictions, voters did not give a majority to a coalition led by Hezbollah, which alone among Lebanese factions maintains a huge private army.

“Everyone was afraid there would be a war if the opposition won,” said Ali Hodraj, a shopkeeper and Hezbollah supporter in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

Marwan Hamadeh, a member of Parliament and of the pro-Western March 14 coalition that won 71 of 128 Parliament seats in the elections, said he still fears conflict because Israel is led by a right-wing coalition.

“I’ve always had the feeling that extremists in the area nourish each other,” he said. “[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is a pretext for Hezbollah and Hamas, and they’re an influence for right-wing votes in Israel.”

Alain Aoun, another member of Parliament and of the March 14 coalition, pointed to Lebanon’s stake in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s always a cycle in the Middle East. The main concern is the Palestinians,” he said. “Netanyahu said there would be no right to return, implying that they would expel the Palestinians. He said he wanted a Jewish state. Where will they go? We’re the closest.”

Lebanese also are debating the impact of political turmoil in Iran, where senior clerics and politicians, along with millions of Iranians, are still disputing the supposed landslide victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12.

Mr. Hamadeh said Iran’s preoccupation with internal power struggles would limit its influence in Lebanon and diminish Iran’s appeal as a model for Lebanese fundamentalist groups.

“The Iranian situation makes Iran’s image lose ground,” Mr. Hamadeh said.

He added that he also sees Syria, which has been allied with Iran, as “softening its position” regarding the alliance as it seeks “margin to maneuver” to improve ties with the United States.

Mona Yacoubian, a researcher with the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, agreed that “Tehran may opt to reduce its support to Hezbollah, particularly if the hard-liners remain embroiled by the ongoing crisis.”

“For its part, Hezbollah needs to be cognizant of the optics of supporting a repressive regime in Iran while professing to be a movement that champions the downtrodden and oppressed,” she said.

Ghassan Schbley, project associate with the Rand Corp., said Iran will maintain its military alliance with and arms supplies to Hezbollah but might cut back on economic and other aid as it refocuses on repairing the breach between the Iranian people and their government.

“Recent events in Iran have revealed the growing Iranian concern over aid and assistance to other countries,” he said.

Any lessening of foreign influence in Lebanese politics would be a welcome change in a country that has long been a battleground for regional powers.

“Unfortunately, a lot of Lebanese parties have strong ties to foreign countries, and that’s not always a good thing,” Mr. Aoun said. “It makes you lose some of your margin of decision.”

March 14 supporter Ahmad Rifai, a receptionist at a gym in West Beirut - a neighborhood that Hezbollah took over in May 2008 in a show of force that gave it veto power in the outgoing Cabinet - said he hopes to see less foreign interference in his country and more national unity, including the integration of Hezbollah forces into the Lebanese army.

“Hezbollah should become part of the Lebanese army so that they won’t be just an Islamic movement,” he said. “It should be a national resistance movement.”

In the meantime, the laborious process of putting together a government continues as the country’s ethnic and religious factions try to parcel out Cabinet posts. Even as the formation of the Cabinet appears finally to be on track, Lebanese political analysts worry that regional tensions could lead to new clashes.

“If the current levels of tension remain on track, then we’re headed toward war,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “We had elections, and things are going well. But things could go up in flames. The main challenge for the new government will be dealing with Israel, Iran and Hezbollah.”

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