BEIRUT,(Reuters) – Rival Lebanese leaders begin a week of talks on Monday on Hezbollah demands for a national unity government, in a last-ditch effort to defuse a crisis threatening to spill into the streets.
Political sources said chances the “national consultations” would result in a deal to form a new government were slim but did not rule out a compromise to expand the current Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations have all backed Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s call for the talks. But Washington last week accused Syria, Iran and their ally Hezbollah of working to topple Siniora’s government. Damascus and Tehran denied the charge.
Hezbollah has led calls for a more representative government, with more opposition members, after what it saw as its victory in a war with Israel in July and August.
Such a government would go some way in redressing the balance of power in Lebanon, which swung in favour of an anti-Syrian coalition after last year’s withdrawal of Syrian troops following the killing of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah vowed last week to stage peaceful protests demanding fresh elections unless his anti-Syrian opponents, including the majority in Siniora’s cabinet, agree to a new government by mid-November.
Such demonstrations and likely counter-demonstrations could degenerate into street clashes, leading to instability that would cripple prospects for recovery from the summer’s devastating war. “There are some positive signs, the first of which is that all leaders have agreed to attend the consultations and to discuss the demand for a government change,” a senior politician allied with Hezbollah said.
The politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a compromise could be reached to expand the 24-member cabinet by adding six members, most of whom would be from Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun’s bloc.
Aoun, once a bitter foe of Syria, has allied with Hezbollah in opposing the policies of the anti-Syrian majority, who kept him out the government even though he won elections in the Christian heartland.
Hezbollah and its ally Berri currently have five ministers, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has one, while Aoun is not represented. These leaders want to make up a third of the cabinet, enough to block any decisions.
Their opponents say such demands would effectively make the government hostage to Syria’s allies because the resignation of a third of the cabinet ministers would automatically lead to the resignation of the whole government. But some believed all parties would lose out if people took to the streets to topple the government or to defend it.
“Giant efforts are ongoing to avert a showdown in the streets,” Sateh Noureddine, columnist at the As-Safir newspaper, told Reuters. “The door for a compromise is not closed.”
Except for Nasrallah, all the key Lebanese players are expected to attend the talks, including anti-Syrian leaders Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt who both returned from visits abroad over the weekend.
Hezbollah is likely to send the head of its parliamentary bloc Mohammad Raad, due to concerns over Nasrallah’s personal security. Israeli officials have in recent months threatened to assassinate the Hezbollah chief.
Hezbollah accuses the anti-Syrian coalition of failing to back it during the war and of supporting U.S. and Israeli demands for the disarmament of its Shi’ite Muslim guerrillas.
The coalition blames Hezbollah for dragging Lebanon into a disastrous war at the behest of its Syrian and Iranian allies.