Lebanese Political Leaders Meet in Qatar to Resolve Stalemate

Qatari Prime Minister Hamad has had a direct role in the talks.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad has had a direct role in the talks. (Lefteris Pitarakis - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 18, 2008

DOHA, Qatar, May 17 -- Most of Lebanon's leading politicians, divided by the country's worst crisis since the civil war ended in 1990, began negotiations Saturday in Qatar on a deal to end an 18-month stalemate that has effectively left Lebanon without a functioning government.

Officials from the U.S.-backed government and leaders from the opposition, allied with Iran and Syria, said they expect to reach a deal soon, perhaps within days, despite obstacles that have bedeviled similar negotiations since 2006.

"Let's wait. We have no choice but to be optimistic," said Samir Geagea, one of the 14 negotiators and the head of the Lebanese Forces, a civil war-era militia that is now a political faction.

The talks follow the worst outbreak of internal violence since the 15-year civil war. Hezbollah, angered by government decisions that targeted the group, briefly occupied parts of Beirut, the capital, and closed the airport and seaport. On Wednesday, the government repealed those decisions, and the following day, all parties agreed to the mediation in Qatar, effectively on the terms of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim movement that has led the anti-government campaign.

Qatar's prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani, has played a direct role in the negotiations, conducted under the umbrella of the Arab League. Qatar, a small emirate rich in natural gas, has a mercurial foreign policy that has delivered it influence with Israel and patrons along Lebanon's political spectrum: Iran, Syria and the United States, which maintains a base here.

Nearly all of Lebanon's leaders arrived in Doha on Friday, with the exception of Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary general. They met formally for less than two hours Saturday. In their most concrete step, the parties agreed to form a delegation, consisting of three representatives from each side, that will try to devise an electoral law for parliamentary elections in 2009.

That law is one of three unresolved issues in Lebanon. The negotiations are also supposed to deliver a formula for power-sharing in the cabinet and to determine a new president, a post vacant since November. All sides have agreed in principle on Gen. Michel Suleiman, the army commander, as a consensus choice.

"The strongest element of success for this attempt is that it is Qatar playing the role of the mediator," said Talal Salman, editor of as-Safir, a Lebanese newspaper.

Since the crisis, opposition figures have at least publicly insisted that they will not try to capitalize on their newfound strength in the Doha negotiations, adhering to a war-era Lebanese adage that there should be no victor, no vanquished. But even in the early stages of the talks, the country's politics seem to have been recalibrated.

"There is a new stage, and those who have difficulty accepting it have a real problem," said Abbas Hachem, an opposition lawmaker.

There is a sense at the talks, too, that the crisis may have created new momentum for a way forward.

"What's happened last week is very serious, and people are really scared. We have to go back with a solution or, as they told us, just don't go back," said Nabil de Freij, a pro-government lawmaker.

As Lebanese leaders left the Beirut airport Friday, activists gathered there with banners. "One way ticket," they read. "If you don't find a solution, don't come back."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company