x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Lebanon's reconciliation talks falter

The second round of talks set to bridge the divide in Lebanon's bickering political factions has broken down.

BEIRUT // The second session of national reconciliation talks designed to bridge the divide between Lebanon's bickering political factions broke down yesterday in a dispute over who should be allowed to participate. Pro-government supporters were on the verge of leaving the talks over the question of including more pro-opposition factions when Ghassan Tueni, a member of parliament, collapsed, political figures at the meeting said. His collapse led to an adjournment that might have saved the entire process.

The national reconciliation talks began in May after a series of clashes between pro-opposition Shiite parties led by Hizbollah and a pro-government Sunni party, the Future Movement, nearly drove the country into civil war. After the Arab League brokered a deal to end the fighting and install a national unity government led by Michel Suleiman as president, all the major factions agreed to a dialogue over national issues, the most difficult being whether Hizbollah has the right to maintain an independent military wing.

But the process foundered almost immediately as the Hizbollah-led opposition refused to discuss the issue of its weapons until three political supporters were added to the 14-member dialogue over the strong objections of the pro-government side, which wants to keep participation narrow and immediately discuss a national defence strategy. Samir Geagea, a right-wing Christian leader, said just before the talks that his party would "push the discussion of the defence strategy issue" during the session.

"Those who are demanding to increase the number of participants want to waste time and distract us from the dialogue's main purpose," he said. Paul Salem, an analyst for the Carnegie Institute, said the objections by the pro-government forces - commonly called March 14 - are founded on political realism. "It's pretty obvious that the three leaders that the opposition wants at the table are important players," he said. The three represent pro-opposition forces from the Sunni, Christian and Druze communities.

"These are recognised as long-standing bosses in the Lebanese traditional sense who represent rivals to the March 14 movement. It's obvious that March 14 would object to their participation for simple political purposes." But yesterday, as the talks were on the verge of collapse, Mr Tueni, a key representative of March 14 and the Greek Orthodox community, suffered a stroke during the meeting. Mr Suleiman suspended the negotiations until Dec 22. Mr Tueni remained in hospital last night.

Mr Tueni replaced his son, Gibran, who was killed in a 2005 car bomb attack, as a member of parliament and is considered a powerful supporter of inter-sectarian dialogue in Lebanon's fractious political scene. Mr Suleiman, according to participants in the meeting, decided to force the negotiators to decide themselves if the talks should be expanded to include more opposition voices, a move that had the talks on the brink of failure before Mr Tueni fell ill.

But while the government and Mr Suleiman continue to describe the series of talks as the only way to stabilise Lebanon, Mr Salem said the geopolitical reality makes the talks more symbolic than anything. "The upside to these talks is not very high: to continue to have dialogue at a talking level rather than at a fighting level. This process gets the political leadership in the habit of politely talking instead of fighting or screaming insults at one another."

The election of Barak Obama on Tuesday may delay resolution of the parties' dispute. Hizbollah will probably now be forced to wait to see if an Obama presidency forces Israel and Syria closer to the negotiating table. The two have had indirect talks through the mediation of Turkey. "The whole fate of Hizbollah awaits the new regional alignment," Mr Salem said. "By the middle of 2009, Hizbollah and the president should know how things are going to play out. Syria and Israel formally beginning peace talks would be a major development for Lebanon, as would an actual peace agreement. That would leave Hizbollah with the choice of disarming and entering politics or scorning the influence of Syria."