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Lebanon Talks in Qatar Falter, But Mediators Hope for Deal

Lebanese political leaders are locked in negotiations in Qatar aimed at reaching a power-sharing deal to solve Lebanon's political crisis. The Qatari mediators have proposed delaying discussion of some of the thorniest problems until after the two sides have formed a government of national unity and elected a new president. From Beirut, VOA's Challiss McDonough has this look at the main issues.

Although it is viewed as progress that Lebanon's rival political factions have actually been negotiating - something they have not done since 2006 - it appears likely that the core of the political crisis will remain unresolved.

The Qatari mediators have indicated they want to reach an interim deal fairly soon that will, if nothing else, allow Lebanon to elect a president and name a new government, while putting off discussion of key issues until later. But even agreeing on that will require compromise, something neither side has shown much willingness to do.

The issues that the politicians have been fighting over in Doha since Friday have divided them for the past year and a half. The main difference is the urgency with which they are discussing them, in the wake of deadly sectarian clashes.

Sami Baroudi teaches political science at Lebanese American University.

"I do not want to be overly optimistic, but I think everybody realized that we have really reached a very dangerous point last week, and the events really shook the foundations of the country,"Sami Baroudi."And unless people are willing to move to a war situation, then they have to accept a settlement that is not going to meet all their conditions."

The two sides do not even agree on which issues should be discussed, let alone on how they should be solved.

The most immediate problem is the balance of power in government. The opposition parties, led by Hezbollah, have demanded one-third of the cabinet posts, enough to wield a veto on any decision.

That issue has delayed the election of army chief General Michel Suleiman as president, even though his taking the post is one thing both sides agree on.

Lebanon has not had a president since November, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud's term ended.

Also at issue is the electoral law that was drafted by Syria, but Baroudi says neither side wants to allow changes that could give the other side a political advantage in upcoming parliamentary elections.

"I think it is sort of clear to the players that the electoral system is more significant than the composition of the next government, because the next government will be out anyway in 10 or 11 months, after the parliamentary election," said Baroudi. "This is what the constitution says. The electoral system will somehow define the balance of power for the next four or five years."

The Qatari mediators have recommended putting off negotiations on the electoral law until after General Suleiman is elected and a government of national unity is named.

The government wanted to include disarming Hezbollah in the negotiations, but the opposition has flatly refused. The mediators indicate the issue has probably been taken off the table until later.

The government has long been under pressure from its international allies, especially the United States, to disarm Hezbollah. But most analysts agree that the government has never had the capacity to do so, and this issue has never been seriously raised in Lebanon.

But the recent fighting may have changed that. Analysts say by using its weapons against other Lebanese, Hezbollah has put its arsenal on the negotiating table. Analysts also warn that anger and frustration among Sunni Muslims who feel targeted by Hezbollah could strengthen support for radical al-Qaida-inspired movements, which could push Lebanon further down the road to civil war.

Another Lebanese American University political science professor, Bassel Salloukh, says Hezbollah's weapons have become a sectarian issue, and failing to deal with them risks inflaming sectarian animosity.

"This is the stark reality that Hezbollah will face today," said Bassel Salloukh. "If the sectarian issue is going to be defused, it will take compromises on their part vis a vis their weapons arsenal. Again, that does not mean complete demobilization immediately, it means something, something has to give, otherwise the sectarian mobilization and the sectarian tension will remain at a peak, and that is very dangerous. That is very dangerous for Hezbollah."

On Beirut streets, life appears to have gotten more or less back to normal. But just below the surface there is great anxiety and fear that there may be more violence if political leaders cannot reach a deal.

When the politicians left for Qatar on Friday, a group of disabled Lebanese - many of whom were wounded during the 15-year civil war - held a small demonstration at the airport to see them off. They held signs saying, "If you cannot agree, do not come back."