What happens in New York stays in New York.
Discordant echoes have arisen following the Group of Five (France, United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt) meeting to discuss Lebanon Tuesday, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
The five powers did not issue any statements after their meeting, as they had done at their previous meeting in Doha in July.
On the one hand, there is talk of attempts to encircle the French approach and to clip the wings of French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian, who nevertheless benefited from Saudi support during his last visit to Beirut.
Another version of events suggest that there was no disagreement among the five, but an adjustment of priorities, between dialogue, the presidential election and the economic rescue plan.
Divergence or convergence?
In terms of form, the New York meeting got off on a weak footing, since the foreign ministers of Paris’ four partners did not attend, entrusting the meeting to senior officials instead.
“Had the meeting been held at ministerial level, not only would the discussions have been more fruitful, but the participants would have been required to issue a statement on their agreement, which did not seem possible on Tuesday,” said a Western diplomatic source.
Also in terms of form, the meeting was a theater of a dispute between France and the United States, which seemed like a replay of the Doha meeting. The Americans — who had the firmest stance — and the Saudis insisted on the need to set a timetable for the French initiative and to sanction those responsible for the deadlock.
“Washington does not intend to leave the French to act alone on the Lebanese scene,” said an Arab diplomat, adding that,
“the Americans want to pave the way for Doha to intervene.”
Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani referred to the Lebanese issue during his General Assembly address a few hours after the quintet meeting. He regretted that “the people’s suffering has continued due to political calculations,” and stressed “the need to find a solution to the presidential vacancy.”
This signals a new intervention by Qatar in the presidential issue, with the blessing of Washington and Riyadh. “They just have to identify the right moment,” said the Arab diplomat.
As a result, France’s role is being called into question in diplomatic circles, as it no longer seems capable of shaping a way out of the crisis on its own, particularly since the advantages that Paris had in Lebanon, namely its historical ties to the Christians and the Hariri family, along with its ability to communicate with Hezbollah, are increasingly fragile.
The Christians are against the French approach, which they consider too conciliatory with Hezbollah, while Saad Hariri has withdrawn from politics.
The Iranians, Hezbollah’s backers, are in dialogue with the Saudis and the Americans.
Qatar, which has established itself as an effective mediator between these capitals, and among the Lebanese themselves, could therefore be pushed to play a more important role in the presidential dossier. This would happen at the expense of the French, whose partners in the group of five believe they have failed to find a solution to the crisis.
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, a French diplomatic source denied this version of events. “There is a convergence of views among quintet members. The Franco-Saudi sequence during Jean-Yves Le Drian’s last visit to Beirut clearly showed this. Some Lebanese players are trying to create the perception of differences between the international partners to shirk their own responsibilities.”
The source added, “Jean-Yves Le Drian’s mission will continue for as long as French authorities see fit. Press rumors insinuating that it will end soon are unfounded.”
On the Lebanese side, eyes are already focused on the Beirut visit of Qatar’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mohammad bin Abdel Aziz al-Khulaifi, which could take place in early October, though the date has yet to be fixed.
Some officials wanted the visit to take place as soon as the French envoy left Beirut last week. There is a growing conviction in Lebanon that, after the French initiative’s failure, only Doha will be able to find common ground between the various players, despite their differences.
This seems all the more clear after the conclusion of the Qatar-brokered Washington-Tehran agreement, involving releasing frozen Iranian funds in exchange for the release of US citizens detained in Iran.
Dialogue, again and again
In the meantime, an inter-Lebanese dialogue could be conducted on two fronts. Upon his return to Beirut for a fourth visit in October, the French envoy will hold bilateral meetings with representatives of the political blocs to discuss the procedure leading to the election of a president and his expected program.
On the other hand Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is in principle still keen to convene a dialogue in October, despite the refusal of the intransigent group of the opposition.
“The dialogue that Berri desires will last a maximum of seven days and will be followed by an open electoral session in which the rounds will follow one another until the election of a president,” said an anonymous official close to Berri, while opponents criticize the house speaker, accusing him of using ambiguous language so as to encourage legislators to accept his initiative without convening the open session they are calling for.
The anonymous official added, “Berri’s proposal consists of having the doors of Parliament opened for a first round (86 votes needed for a quorum and for the election). The session will not be adjourned and the rounds will take place one after the other, but the quorum will remain 86 votes, even though 65 will suffice for a second round.”
In order to prevent a group of MPs from exercising what they consider to be their “constitutional right” to block quorum at this session, the speaker believes that dialogue is essential. The talks could then lead to the emergence of a consensus candidate or a list of competing candidates for president of the republic.
“Berri is waiting for most political blocs to respond favorably to the invitation,” said an anonymous source close to Berri. “This will depend on the Free Patriotic Movement, which has shown signs of openness. If it agrees to take part, dialogue will then be conducted with those present.”
Some parties believe that after Le Drian’s fourth visit, if an inter-Lebanese dialogue does indeed take place in Parliament, the Qataris could intervene to support this process, as they did in Doha in 2008. Depending on national and international contacts, a compromise might then be possible.
Others do not share this optimism and fear that the presidential election will be postponed until favorable regional conditions are met, in particular an alignment between Iranian and US interests, including Hezbollah. At that point, the identity of the next president will become of less importance.
This story first ran in French in L’Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle Khoury.