Tensions flare in Lebanon


BEIRUT, Lebanon — After a quiet summer in Lebanon, two back-to-back developments have reminded everyone here of the precariousness of the peace.

Two rockets launched from southern Lebanon landed in northern Israel Friday afternoon, triggering retaliatory fire from the Israeli side into Lebanon. Israeli warplanes roamed the skies as United Nations peacekeepers cordoned off the launch area near Lebanon's southern port city of Tyre.

No casualties were reported on either side.

It's the first time since February that rocket fire has hit Israel from Lebanon. The border area was the scene of intense combat for 33 days in 2006 between the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and Israeli forces. But since then Hezbollah has denied responsibility for sporadic, isolated rocket fire, and the Israelis have agreed. They attribute the provocations to small Palestinian militant groups.

But the Israelis did make their displeasure clear. On Friday night, a caller identifying himself as the "Israeli government" warned in a recorded phone call on Lebanese home landlines not to "support any Islamic groups that attack Israel." The rocket fire comes as both Hezbollah and Israel have ratcheted up rhetoric in the past few weeks.

"The IDF considers the Lebanese government and Lebanese military as accountable to prevent such attacks," said the Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson in a statement after the rockets attacks.

The only problem with that statement is there isn't much of a government to speak of in Lebanon.

After a summer of backroom negotiations over the formation of a cabinet, Lebanon appears to be headed for yet another political crisis.

Saad Hariri, the designated prime minister, stepped down Thursday from his appointment as premier, saying he was unable to form a unity cabinet because of the opposition’s demands. Hariri was selected to form a cabinet by his U.S.- and Saudi Arabian-backed coalition, which won in June parliamentary elections against the Hezbollah-led and Syrian and Iranian-backed opposition.

Some attribute the logjam to the chilling of the regional warmth that had gathered in the wake of Barack Obama's election to the U.S. presidency. Regional antagonists Syria and Saudi Arabia had begun talking again. The U.S. made new overtures to Iran and Syria. But now, it seems, tensions are surfacing, with Lebanon serving as a kind of canary in the coal mine.

Hariri will almost certainly be nominated again to assemble a cabinet, but he may leave the opposition out of the lineup, which could lead to a similar situation as in the dark days of 2006 and 2007, when the country was wracked by car bombs and assassinations after the opposition called for Hariri's majority ruling coalition to step down.

Another disturbing deja vu is that the tiny, gas rich, power-brokering nation of Qatar has offered its services once again to save Lebanon’s bickering politicians from themselves.

The emirate, which has a population of 400,000 and 10 percent of all the natural gas reserves in the world, leading it to have one of the highest per capita incomes, announced that it would be willing to host a dialogue session between the embittered Lebanese parties. Qatar is one of the few neutral countries in the region, and juggles friendly relations with Iran while also hosting the U.S. Central Command 's headquarters a few miles away from the Al Jazeera satellite broadcasting channel headquarters.  It wouldn’t be the first time Qatar has stepped in to mediate. In May 2008 the emirate hosted a dialogue session that broke through 18 months of political deadlock that had led to the brink of civil war.

"We hope that the Lebanese will find a solution but we are ready to help them if that becomes necessary," said Qatari Prime and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Ben Jassem Ben Jabr al-Thani after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Qatar hosted the last dialogue after two years of the Bush administration’s confrontational policies in the region gave way to a more conciliatory tone. That shift only increased with Obama’s presidency. It’s doubtful the U.S. will return to similar policies anytime soon, but the underlying causes of Lebanon’s and the region’s instability have not been resolved. Until there is a final agreement on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon appears doomed to suffer the ebbs and flows of regional relations and instability.