Lebanon simmers

By Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks

In many ways, Lebanon has recovered from the devastation of Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006. And the country's recent political stability has held up nicely despite the turbulence of recent years. A record number of tourists have arrived this year.

But the possibility that a U.N.-sponsored tribunal will indict Hezbollah members later this year for the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri threatens to shake things up. In a speech last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah predicted the tribunal would target members of his organization, rejected the tribunal's legitimacy, and accused the March 14 movement led by Hariri's son and political successor Saad of blaming Syria and Hezbollah for the murder simply to win broader political support. He also accused March 14 of fomenting sectarian tension.

The speech was a power play. Nasrallah called on March 14 leaders to make amends for offenses against Syria, Hezbollah, and the opposition and to help Lebanon enter a new phase of political harmony by pressuring the U.N. tribunal to halt its investigation.

Given its weakened political position, March 14 will probably accept some of Nasrallah's demands. Hariri can't allow his Sunni base to believe he is willing to see his father's murder go completely unpunished, but he doesn't want to push Hezbollah hard enough to send the country spiraling toward violence for which he might be blamed. Nasrallah is in a tough spot too. He knows an indictment is likely and wants to keep his political base happy by launching a pre-emptive strike on its findings.

In years past, Lebanese politics at a similar simmer would have quickly boiled over, but erstwhile adversaries and regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Syria are working together this time to keep things cool. They can't afford to see Lebanon descend into violence again either.

Can the current standoff be resolved without a credible resolution to Rafiq Hariri's murder? More to the point, can the country's political stability withstand the tribunal's ongoing investigation? No one has faced justice, raising still more questions about the Lebanese government's commitment to rule of law. Saad Hariri wants justice, but is unwilling to push the country over the edge. Nasrallah says he's committed to finding the truth -- so long as truth doesn't implicate Syria or Hezbollah.