Hezbollah Envoys to Attend French Conference on Lebanon

Senior Hezbollah officials will participate tomorrow at a conference in France in which French officials will try to mediate a solution to the political crisis in Lebanon. The conference is scheduled to last until Monday.

Even though France is hosting the meeting, the diplomatic efforts had also involved Iran and Saudia Arabia, which made their own proposals on how Lebanon could emerge from the political impasse in which it has found itself for more than a year.

The officials representing Hezbollah are Mohammed Fneish, former water and energy minister in the Lebanese coalition government, and Nawaf Musawi, the group's foreign affairs coordinator.

Hezbollah had threatened not to participate in the conference following a statement French President Nicolas Sarkozy made during a meeting with the families of two abducted Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, in which he described the militant Shi'ite group as a terrorist organization.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and his ally, General Michel Aoun, demanded clarifications from France, which issued a statement saying that "Hezbollah is an important political player in Lebanese politics."

This was not enough for Nasrallah, who asked for further clarifications or a presidential apology.

He did not receive an apology, but the Elysee Palace "clarified" that Hezbollah is not considered to be a terrorist organization by the European Union, and France is not seeking to register it as such. "The organization is one of the important players in the Lebanese national dialogue."

This way, Hezbollah succeeded in receiving French approval, and confirmed its participation in the conference.

The crisis in Lebanon revolves mostly around the issue of setting up an international tribunal to try those suspected of being behind the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Hezbollah is opposed to the establishment of the tribunal that could convict senior figures in Lebanon and Syria, and is furious with the decision of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to approve the creation of such a court. In retaliation, Nasrallah ordered Hezbollah and its allies out of the government.

Since the start of the crisis Nasrallah has demanded the establishment of a broad national unity government that will allow the opposition to hold a third of the posts in the cabinet - plus one. Since the Lebanese constitution requires that any substantive government decision (such as the establishment of the international tribunal) will be made by a two-thirds majority, if Prime Minister Siniora acquiesces to Nasrallah's demand, Hezbollah will hold veto power.

It is not expected that the conference in France will solve the impasse, but it is likely to frame a solution that will pave the way for a new president in September, when the tenure of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud ends.