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Lebanon Election Could Boost Middle East Peace Efforts


A pro-Western coalition won the recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon, which analysts say could enhance U.S. peace efforts in the region and deal a serious blow to Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The American-backed "March 14th" coalition won 71 of the 128 seats in parliament. Its major rival, the Syrian and Iranian-backed alliance led by Hezbollah won 57 seats.

Despite pre-election forecasts that the Hezbollah-led opposition might gain seats, voters in Lebanon gave the Western-backed coalition a significant majority in parliament.

U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated the nation on the peaceful election, saying he hopes the next government "will continue along the path towards building a sovereign, independent and stable Lebanon."

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called the election a critical step toward Lebanon's rightful achievement of true independence.

"With the voting over, the process of forming a government and developing a government program now begins," said Ian Kelly. "That is a process for the Lebanese to carry out in accordance with the election results and without outside interference.

Lebanon has long been a proxy battlefield for regional and global interests and the outcome was closely monitored throughout the Middle East and beyond.

The election came just days after President Obama reached out to the Muslim world in a speech delivered in Cairo.

The outcome appears to be a significant defeat for Hezbollah, and its allies in Iran and Syria.

An alliance led by Saad Hariri, the billionaire businessman and son of a slain former prime minister, is expected to form the new government.

Graeme Bannerman, who was an election monitor in Lebanon and is a scholar at the Middle East Institute, says Hariri faces a difficult dilemma.

"I think Hariri faces a serious problem," said Graeme Bannerman. "Because his people think they have won a victory and that victory is, they do not really want him to compromise with Hezbollah. They do not want that to happen. So he is in a position where he either has to disappoint Hezbollah or he has to disappoint the majority of his own supporters. That is going to be a very difficult thing for him to do."

Hezbollah, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization, is the most powerful military force in Lebanon. It controls a militia that is stronger than the Lebanese army.

After an armed uprising by Hezbollah in 2008, a compromise agreement gave the group veto power in the cabinet.

Hariri has indicated he will invite Hezbollah to form a national unity government, but will not give the organization enough seats to give it the veto power it holds in the current government.

Bilal Saab, who was born in Lebanon and is currently a Middle East analyst with the Brookings Institution, says Hariri must deal with a complicated situation.

"He is most probably going to grant Hezbollah enough political and security assurances without calling them veto powers because that is such a controversial issue," said Bilal Saab. "He is interested in resurrecting the formula that existed between his father Rafik Hariri and Hezbollah. Meaning let us rebuild the country. We know how to do it. We have the connections. And you do not get us in trouble with Israel and do not start another war."

While the election of the American-backed coalition is seen as a victory for the West and some Arab states, analyst Graeme Bannerman warns against any effort to further influence internal Lebanese politics.

"My only fear is that we encourage actions because our interpretation is we see it in the great global picture that we encourage actions we think will strengthen our hands in the region by using Lebanon and trying to take advantage of this victory and suppress the so-called defeated parties in Lebanon," he said. "That would be a big mistake."

Bannerman says political consensus must be reached to avoid armed conflict and the possibility of civil war.

"The best thing that could happen for the United States and the West is Lebanon reaches a consensus understanding, be peaceful, and not be source of instability in the region, but go back to what it used to be and be a source of stability and consensus in the region," said Bannerman.

Analyst Bilal Saab says while Western nations are pleased with the election results, there has not been a significant change in the Lebanese parliament, where power is divided along sectarian lines.

"The real and the more balanced reading of these elections is that we still have the same communal balance of power in Lebanon," said Bilal Saab. "We have a new political era that is full of promise and conciliation and there is a lot of room for bargaining, but the main issues have yet to be resolved."

In the wake of the vote, there were encouraging signs the tensions between Hezbollah and the pro-Western faction may be easing. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says he is recognizing the election results and is offering to cooperate with the winners.

State Department officials say the U.S. would reconsider its position on Hezbollah, if the group gives up its weapons and becomes a normal political party.

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