Billionaire Businessman Wins Upset Victory in Lebanese Elections

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Syria is not likely to quit its occupation of Lebanon any time soon, nor is the government in Beirut likely to hold independent peace talks with Israel as a result of elections that are likely to return a former prime minister and billionaire businessman to power.

However, the polls, in which Rafik Hariri won an overwhelming victory over Syrian backed Prime Minister Salim Hoss, do send a message to Damascus, an Israeli expert on Lebanese and Syrian affairs said on Tuesday: Lebanon is looking for change.

"I think the real interest of Lebanon is to have less subjugation to Syria," Dr. Yossi Olmert said. The Lebanese also want economic reform and Hariri is seen as the man for the job, he added.

"It will be slow [but] the direction is clear," he said. "The Syrians understand it won't be in the future as it was in the past."

Hariri and candidates on his ticket won 18 out of 19 seats in Beirut in the second round of parliamentary elections. Hariri, who made his fortune as a construction magnate in Saudi Arabia, was prime minister from 1992-98, when he quit over a dispute with President Emile Lahoud.

Lahoud, who is responsible for appointing the prime minister based on a parliamentary recommendation, backed Hoss in the elections, but Hoss did not even hold onto his parliamentary seat.

Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, said he will follow the constitution and appoint the prime minister whom the parliament picks.

However, Hariri will still need the endorsement of Damascus to claim the post of prime minister.

Syria deploys 35,000 troops in Lebanon and has for years dominated its political system.

The second round of voting on Sunday, which followed last week's poll in the staggered elections, gave Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, the backing of 43 seats in the 128-member parliament.

He will still need the support of a Shi'ite Muslim coalition as well as Hizballah's backing to form a majority.

Hizballah won all 23 seats in southern Lebanon as well as a majority in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border.

The Iranian-backed terrorist group claimed victory when Israel withdrew its forces to the international border in May, after maintaining a buffer zone in southern Lebanon for 18 years.

It was the first time southern Lebanon participated in national elections since 1972, three years before the start of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

Many Maronite Christians, including the residents of southern Lebanon, boycotted the elections because of the heavy Syrian involvement in them.

Lebanese analysts opposed to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, have said that no matter what the election results, no candidate would be allowed to win without Syrian approval.

"The Syrians are not going to renounce their contractual relations [with Lebanon]," Olmert said. In an agreement signed between the two countries in 1991, relations between them were described as "preferential and special."

But there was "no question that Syrians should be worried about [the outcome of elections]."

Olmert acknowledged a change in Syrian methods since President Bashar Assad replaced his late father, Hafez.

"In the old days the Syrians killed their opponents," he said. Now Hariri would likely be told the "rules of the game" and be expected to abide by them.

Olmert said the election results were unlikely to have any affect on Lebanese-Israeli relations, since Lebanese foreign policy remained dictated by Damascus.

Jerusalem had hoped to carry out its troop withdrawal in the context of an agreement with Beirut and with Syria but that plan was aborted after talks between Israel and Syria deadlocked in the spring.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak took the decision to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon unilaterally under a 1978 United Nations resolution in May.

A later U.N. resolution calls for all foreign forces to leave Lebanon.

Apart from its troops, Syria currently has more than a million foreign workers in Lebanon, which the late Assad considered - along with Israel - to be part of "Greater Syria."