By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 3:43 AM
BEIRUT - Two days after the collapse of his government, Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon in a caretaker role Friday and called for dialogue before denouncing the decision by the Hezbollah movement and its allies to leave the administration. He had been criticized for not returning immediately from a foreign trip at a time of national crisis.
"There is no alternative to dialogue," Hariri told reporters after meeting with President Michel Suleiman. He called Hezbollah's move "democratic" but added, "Between power and the dignity of my people and country, I choose the dignity of Lebanon and the Lebanese."
Hariri traveled Friday from Turkey, where he had pushed for a meeting of Middle Eastern and Western countries to help Lebanon weather its crisis, officials said. The small but regionally important country faces protracted negotiations before a new government can be formed.
The militant Shiite Hezbollah group and its allies resigned from the government Wednesday to protest Hariri's refusal to renounce the work of a U.N. tribunal investigating the death of Hariri's father, former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, in a car bombing in 2005.
The collapse was the latest twist in a crisis that has plagued Lebanon intermittently since the Sunni leader's assassination, and it formalized a standoff over the tribunal that has paralyzed Saad Hariri's administration for months - with Hariri, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, on one side and Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, on the other.
After meeting with Hariri in Ankara on Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two were considering "organizing a series of meetings attended by the U.S., France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt," adding that he would start by calling Iran and Qatar.
The rift over the tribunal that divides Lebanon's political leaders and, behind them, their powerful regional backers will make it nearly impossible to form a government without a compromise on the issue.
While Hezbollah has denied involvement in Rafiq al-Hariri's death, impending indictments are widely believed to implicate some of its members. The Shiite group does not want to be accused of killing a Sunni Arab leader and cannot afford to lose what its sees as its status as Arab "resistance" and be viewed as a sectarian militia, said Hezbollah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who is close to the movement.
Hezbollah's apparent plan to build enough support in parliament to control selection of the next prime minister is a "bargaining chip" in the push for compromise on the tribunal by Hariri, she added.
Despite the political upheaval, violence was not expected and the capital's streets were calm.
"Ideally, Hezbollah wants Hariri as prime minister, it wants to maintain resistance to Israel, it wants the U.S. to stop intervening in Lebanese affairs, and it wants civil peace and coexistence," Saad-Ghorayeb said.
"For the time being we're likely to see a situation of paralysis where not much happens," said Robert Malley, the regional program director for the International Crisis Group. "Right now we've been brought to a situation where no one is comfortable."