January 22, 2009 / 3:19 PM / 11 years ago

Arab rift over Gaza raises stakes in Lebanon vote

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rifts between Arab states over the war in Gaza add an extra challenge to Lebanon’s fragile political stability as it approaches an election this year.

Arab states’ conflicting positions, underlined by their support for rival Palestinian groups, mirror factional rows in Lebanon which have fueled political crises in recent years.

Deepened by the Gaza conflict, Arab divisions look set to increase the political heat in Lebanon as alliances backed by rival regional states compete for control of parliament in the June 7 legislative elections.

“I am still afraid for Lebanon,” said Rosana Boumonsef, a political commentator with the Lebanese an-Nahar newspaper. “Gaza and Lebanon were, and remain, the scene for the translation of this Arab struggle,” she told Reuters.

Lebanon has enjoyed eight months of relative stability thanks to a Qatari-mediated deal that defused deep conflict between a Saudi-backed coalition and a rival bloc supported by Syria and Iran. At its peak, the conflict had pushed Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war.

Tensions among Lebanese, fueled by Arab states’ differences over the diplomatic approach to the Gaza crisis, quickly turned into political infighting over whether Lebanon should take part in a gathering of Arab leaders convened last week by Qatar.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman reversed an initial decision not to go to the Doha summit, apparently under pressure from Syria’s allies in Lebanon, which include the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia sought this week to narrow differences with Syria and Qatar at this week’s Kuwait summit. But its public overture appeared to make little progress.

The Qatar summit, which was attended by the leader of Hamas, was opposed by U.S.-allied Arab states Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which favor dealing with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Syria and Iran, both backers of Hamas, attended.

Pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar said Suleiman’s initial decision on the Qatar gathering showed his bias toward the anti-Syrian “March 14” alliance, led by Saudi-backed politician Saad al-Hariri. Suleiman “threatened internal consensus,” it said.

It was the first serious criticism Suleiman has faced since his election as a “consensus candidate” in May as part of the Doha agreement, which led to the formation of a national unity government.

Publicly, Lebanese leaders remain committed to the Doha deal. But with none of the root causes of the political conflict resolved, some observers say a new understanding will be needed to avoid more crises in the post-election period, when a new government will be formed.

“ARAB MINEFIELD”

Crossing an “Arab minefield,” as Al Anwar newspaper said in an editorial, Lebanese areas of dispute include the role of the guerrilla army operated by Hezbollah, a strategic ally of Iran. Stronger than the Lebanese army, Hezbollah’s military wing is a major concern among the Shi’ite group’s opponents in Lebanon.

Likewise, an international tribunal to hear a case into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is likely to force itself onto the political agenda once again when the court is established in The Hague on March 1.

Syria’s allies in Lebanon have expressed concern the court could be used politically against them and Damascus. Saad al-Hariri, a son of the assassinated statesman, has accused Damascus of orchestrating the killing.

With the stakes so high for the Lebanese rivals and their regional sponsors, both sides will seek to win the parliamentary election “by any means,” one diplomat in Beirut said. Arab divisions over the Gaza war were “an additional factor pressuring the Lebanon situation,” the diplomat added.

Politicians say regional players have already pumped unprecedented amounts of cash into Lebanon to support their local allies’ election campaigns.

Editing by Louise Ireland

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