15 May 2005

"Maybe we should offer a rented house to Terje Larsen in Beirut so he would keep giving us his tutorship and guidance," suggested a parliament member, former Energy Minister Mohammed Beydoun to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, which as a satellite is the most widely watched by Lebanese at home and abroad. With continued sarcasm, he added that, on reconsideration, Mr. Larsen may wish to occupy the premises recently vacated in Anjar on the Lebanese-Syrian border by withdrawing Syrian Security Czar Colonel Abou Ghozaleh.

Similarly, in a popular gathering at his mountain stronghold, key Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt told a crowded press conference that he did not wish to exchange Syrian dominance for another foreign or international one. Lebanese sovereignty, which the Syrians regrettably flouted, also required others who offered help to refrain from interfering in political details. While refusing to have Syrian officers dictate Lebanese policy, "we do not want to have governments formed by some ambassadors, or named by Larsen and the U.N."

It may have started with a private plane ride from Beirut to Damascus. Terje Roed Larsen had arrived in the Syrian capital to pursue the implementation of Resolution 1559. His press officer had announced that he would be meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad upon arrival. That was not to be. He was left cooling his heels, meeting other officials and sent to Beirut for what was described as an "oral exam." After meeting the right people and making the right statements, Larsen was put on a private plane belonging to a personal close friend of Mr. Assad, then former Minister of Public Works, Najib Mikati. By the time the U.N. envoy concluded his second visit to prepare the First Semi-Annual Report of the Secretary General, Mr. Mikati was Prime Minster of Lebanon. Chapeau for Mr. Larsen. And to Premier Mikati. One would have included also the Syrian President were it not for the fact that by then several cooks were joining in a "minestrone" of fixes. French President Chirac took the lead. Having received Larsen, he welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah and the Lebanese Patriarch as his officials met with Lebanese, Syrian and Arab operatives while keeping Washington in the picture. When main opposition leader Walid Jumblatt arrived for an unprecedented state visit, he saw the name of Mikati as an already agreed consensus candidate to head a new transitional government. He understood it was initially recommended by Larsen and enthusiastically approved by the others who admired the sharp sophisticated businessman turned politician.

Thus far, Mr. Larsen, like his new-found transitional Prime Minister friend, was doing fairly well. But then, either he could not resist media exposure or was convinced that he was accomplishing a useful task by getting in touch with so many local players, bringing him close to intervening in internal affairs of a passionate political society where every action ha an equal and opposite reaction. Most likely, Larsen, who was coordinating with U.S., French and other diplomats were obviously interested in a full implementation of Resolution 1559. Yet those diplomats kept their remarks and movements under cover of general principles. The U.N. envoy, on the other hand, seemed determined to let it be known to what extent he was "helping" in the formation of the government in the drafting of an electoral law. As is everywhere, these matters have a combustible combination of personal ambitions with political aspiration.

In fact, the main function of the new Lebanese government was to hold national elections in time. And unity of Lebanese which forced a swift withdrawal of Syrian forces was threatened by arguments about the parliamentary electoral law on which the elections will be held end May. A proposal by a previous government was shelved, thus allowing for a de facto application of the process applied in the year 2000. The Christian opposition believe that process was drafted by a Syrian senior security official in a mapping that would allow for a victory for pro-Syrian elements. It separated and dumped certain predominantly Christian areas in larger moslem entities. An agreement which had been reached by opposition factions of all religious backgrounds opted for smaller districts where voters would recognize the personalities of competing candidates.

How the U.N. envoy got so closely involved in such a locally explosive issue is unclear. Local papers indicated that he made a series of phone calls from New York to several political figures. What seemed puzzling was that he insisted on waking up the Maronite Patriarch in the middle of the night to give him the benefit of his advice. Despite the courteous response, there were questions of how urgent or appropriate was it to embark on what even the President of the Republic would hesitate to do. That, of course, had nothing to do with the ire of the Druze leader who must have been either overlooked or "helped" with one advice too many by the Norwegian U.N. envoy.

To be fair, Terje Roed Larsen has put a tremendous effort in his 1559 mission and the help of the U.N. Press Officer in Beirut was valuable. It is likely he will continue following up some "full implementation" of the resolution after the full Syrian withdrawal despite an appointment of his replacement in the top Mideast envoy post. In order to maintain a successful U.N. role, he would be better off to hold his horses a bit and avoid being drawn too closely into what unduly spoil his otherwise commendable effort.