In Lebanon, the Spectre of Peace

Hezbollah is the big winner in the accord on Lebanon signed in Doha, Qatar. But everyone — including Washington — is welcoming this asymmetrical compromise. Why? Hard bargaining is underway. . . .

In the Middle East, neither the worst nor the best is ever certain. But what happened in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on Wednesday, at 3 o’clock in the morning, is a historic event. The accord putting an end — for now — to the political crisis that tore Lebanon for the past eighteen months (and many more in fact) contains a tough lesson for the West: its weakened friends in Beirut had to bend themselves to the force of Hezbollah and its allies Amal, another Shi’i party, and the Christians led by Michel Aoun. The Party of God will enter the government without laying down its arms, as a minority with veto power.

A peculiar defeat, however: it is welcomed everywhere, except in Israel, which exhausted itself in a war against Hezbollah less than two years ago. Iran under Imam Khamenei, whose politico-religious tutelage the leadership of the Lebanese Islamist party accepts, and its ally Syria welcomed the Doha accord. But France has also applauded, and US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch has endorsed “this necessary and positive step.” At the same time, George Bush has continued (last week in Jerusalem again) to denounce Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”! But the stubborn Texan is on the way out.

If the rivals in Beirut have accepted a compromise whose terms were dictated by the opposition months ago, it’s because their guardians (Tehran and Damascus on one hand and Washington, and Paris in its shadow, on the other hand) have given their green light. Why this sort of unanimity?

Rami Khouri, a Palestinian professor at the American University of Beirut and one of the best analysts in the region, advances this hypothesis: this extraordinary development perhaps means the emergence of “the first unspoken US-Iranian condominium in the Arab world.”

After the “Cedar Revolution” of 2005, the United States and its friends wanted, through the United Nations, to disarm Hezbollah. An impossible task, save surrender. And ten days ago, the Islamist party demonstrated that it could, by force, impose its will on the government that intended to deprive it of its independent telephone network.

But the Shi’i militants used their weapons. There have been roughly 80 deaths. The inter-communal tensions instantly heightened to a dangerous level. The leaders of Hezbollah are no fools. They know they cannot impose their control on Lebanon against more than a half of its population. They have therefore accepted an accord, which is very favorable, with the opponents who are in a state of weakness. A two-sided government will be established, with each side supported by the leading powers of the region: America and the Gulf states on one side, Iran and Syria on the other.

In the immediate future, the Doha arrangement will allow the election, on Sunday without doubt, of General Michel Suleiman, head of the army, who remained neutral in the recent incidents to the Presidency of the Republic. He is a Maronite Christian, he was appointed to his post when the Syrians dominated Lebanon, he gets on quite well with everyone. The general was the compromise candidate on whom all parties agreed at the end of last year. But the opposition, dominated by Hezbollah, put down a condition: before the vote of the assembly, the Party of God wanted assurances that it would control one third of ministerial portfolios, which would allow it to veto the decisions of the government that displeased it. The party laid down this demand after withdrawing its ministers in November 2006: it wanted then — like Syria — to oppose the formation of an international tribunal to try the assassins of former Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And it wanted to protect its weapons.

Given the balance of power in Beirut, Arab mediators, led by Qatar, accepted Hezbollah’s conditions. The current majority will have sixteen ministers, the opposition will get eleven, and the new president will appoint three. The Party of God obtains the veto power it wanted. It also demanded, in view of the elections next year, a new electoral law in an attempt to expand its representation. Fierce discussions lasted until early morning yesterday: Saad Hariri, pallid son of the assassinated head of state, wanted to save a maximum of 19 seats in the parliament in Beirut, all of which he controls today.

Is it a coincidence that the Qatar arrangement fell on the same day when Ehud Olmert announced that “indirect” negotiations with Syria (but two delegations are in Ankara) started through the good offices of Turkey? This new approach has been strongly encouraged by the United States. At the same time, serious negotiations continue in Cairo to try to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, and discreet contacts with Hamas are multiplying.

Naturally, everything can turn upside down again in a clash of arms. But hard bargaining, crisscross, is underway. And in the United States, Barack Obama (who is not the candidate of Hamas!) said, without spelling it out, while thinking hard, that all diplomatic avenues must be followed to take the edge off the game in the Middle East . . . and to exit Iraq.

The original article in French was published in Le Temps on 22 May 2008. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]