(New York Times)
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon’s worst crisis in years escalated dangerously on Thursday as a last-ditch effort to negotiate a solution ended in failure and the American-backed caretaker prime minister struck a defiant note toward Hezbollah and its allies, which brought down his 14-month-old national unity government this month.
The events cast the crisis into an unpredictable moment, as each side became ever more entrenched in positions with little common ground over indictments expected to name members of Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant movement, in the assassination of the prime minister’s father, Rafik Hariri.
The 17-minute speech by Prime Minister Saad Hariri was delivered just hours after Turkey and Qatar announced that they had abandoned work on their diplomatic initiative. It focused the long-running confrontation in this flammable country between Mr. Hariri’s supporters, backed by the United States and France, and Hezbollah and its allies, backed by Iran and Syria, squarely on Mr. Hariri himself.
In his address, he said he would seek to form a new government in talks next week, defying demands by Hezbollah and its allies that he step down and raising the prospect that the militant movement may revert to the street — be it through protests, labor strikes or even violent confrontations — to ensure that Mr. Hariri is unable to do so.
“I am committed to my candidacy for the prime ministry,” Mr. Hariri said.
A senior opposition official replied, “We don’t want him anymore.”
The speech illustrated an unusual quality of the confrontation so far: Mr. Hariri, long seen as a neophyte and sometimes derided for his naïveté, managed to put Hezbollah and its allies in the position of having to take responsibility for any strife that erupts. In a series of moves in the past months — by lying, according to his opponents — he has managed to win tactically at several turns in the crisis and put his opponents on the defensive, though those same opponents warn that he may disastrously lose the greater battle.
“It’s on the razor’s edge,” Walid Jumblatt, a politician and a leader of the Druse minority who has emerged as a kingmaker, said in an interview. “I can see the nervousness of Hezbollah and the Syrians. They feel — and they are right to feel — outmaneuvered and betrayed.” He warned that the crisis “might blow up the whole country.”
The confrontation has centered on a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father, a former prime minister. He was killed with 22 others in a bombing in February 2005 along Beirut’s seafront, an attack that refigured the political calculus of a diverse country that divides power among its sects. It has yet to forge a new status quo.
Indictments were handed to a judge this week in The Hague, and though they remain secret, it has become commonly accepted that members of Hezbollah, the single most powerful force here, will be named when they are issued within the next two months.
In the speech, Mr. Hariri promised “to uncover the truth and realize justice.”
Each side, though, claims the moral high ground. Mr. Hariri’s allies say the country has the right to know the identity of his father’s killers in an investigation that may end assassinations, which have a tragic record of being simply another card to play in Lebanon’s incessant crises.
Hezbollah says the tribunal has become hopelessly politicized, and, indeed, the United States and France have long viewed it as a way to impose pressure on neighboring Syria, the traditional power broker here. Hezbollah says that witnesses provided testimony that later proved false, and contends that Israel, which it blames for Mr. Hariri’s death, sponsored espionage rings here that could have falsified some of the records investigators used as evidence.
In past days, though, principle has mattered less than a war of nerves, waged in highly personalized attacks with martial language. In embarrassing testimony leaked from the tribunal and broadcast on opposition television, Mr. Hariri was shown talking openly about Lebanese and Syrian leaders, whom he variously called prostitutes, tools and stooges. Hezbollah staged a show of force, organizing gatherings of men clad in black as a message that it was well within its ability to seize the capital, parts of which it occupied in May 2008.
“Hopefully, common sense will prevail this time,” said the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who left Beirut after saying the parties remained far from a deal.
Mr. Hariri’s opponents and supporters agree on the outline of the agreement. Mr. Hariri’s government would have ended Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal. In return, Syria and Hezbollah would have disarmed some Palestinian camps here, removed Hezbollah’s weapons from parts of Beirut and ended its effective veto of government decisions.
Both sides say Mr. Hariri agreed in principle, but the timing of his disavowal of the tribunal became central: his opponents insisted that he had to do it before the indictments were issued to a pretrial judge in The Hague on Monday. Backed by the United States and some of his allies, who thought the indictments strengthened his hand, he did not, despite frenzied talks over the weekend.
Though diplomatic efforts failed, a senior Obama administration official said the White House viewed as a success the very fact that Mr. Hariri did not go ahead with the disavowal.
“One thing that we always hoped to achieve was the start of the judicial process, as evidenced by the handover of indictments to the pretrial judge, without a Lebanese denunciation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” the official said. “That was achieved.”
Others in Lebanon, though, warned that the Americans had no endgame beyond the indictments, and that Mr. Hariri was effectively forcing Hezbollah’s hand.
“They are desperate,” said Fadel Shallak, a former minister and longtime colleague of Mr. Hariri’s father. “You have the rope around their neck and they have to do something. They cannot allow it to pass. It is their existence. I understand it.”
Negotiations over a new government, delayed for a week, are supposed to begin Monday. Mr. Hariri’s confidence in the speech on Thursday night may reflect a belief that his bloc has enough seats to name the next government. Mr. Jumblatt, once an ally of Mr. Hariri’s but now in the opposition camp, is the wild card. He has 11 seats, but he said that, given his bloc’s competing loyalties, he can guarantee that only “four, maybe a maximum five” will vote against Mr. Hariri, too few to deprive him of a majority.
In the interview, Mr. Jumblatt called himself nervous. “Yes, of course,” he said. An ally of Syria, turned vociferous foe, turned ally again, he said he was eager not to make Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, or Hezbollah suspicious of his intentions. The statement was a remarkable insight into the shifting map here. In 2005, after the assassination of Mr. Hariri, Syria was in embarrassing retreat. Today, it wields more influence than any other state.
“I’ve been able to slowly regain the confidence of Hezbollah and Bashar,” Mr. Jumblatt said. “I’m not going to commit any more blunders. I cannot afford to.”