(photo credit: AP)
In a significant diplomatic shift, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will invite Hizbullah to take part in a conference on Lebanon scheduled for later this month in Paris, and begin "engaging" Syria, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
New French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has invited delegates from across Lebanon's political and religious divide to the conference aimed at quelling Lebanon's violence and political strife.
In another sign that France has decided to step up its involvement in the Middle East, Sarkozy is to meet Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Paris on Tuesday.
Regarding Syria, diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said France had let Damascus know it was willing to reengage with it, but that it would not in any way back down from its firm support for an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, or from its demand that Damascus "keep its hands off" of Lebanon.
"The tribunal is established and is behind us," a senior French Foreign Ministry official told the Post from Paris. "There is an understanding between the US and the UN Security Council. The tribunal proposal has passed, in the form of Resolution 1757, so the question will not be raised between us and Hizbullah, or with anyone else."
Hariri and 22 others were killed by a bomb attack in Beirut that many believe was orchestrated by the Syrians. Sources in Jerusalem said there was a great deal of concern among Syrian officials close to President Bashar Assad that they would be implicated by the tribunal, and that Assad was very keen on getting the tribunal squashed.
Hariri was a close friend of then-French president Jacques Chirac, and his assassination put Franco-Syrian relations into a deep freeze.
The view in Jerusalem is that Sarkozy wants to bring about a gradual thaw in the ties, in order to play the "honest broker" and stabilize Lebanon. The conference in Paris, according to this assessment, is part of this effort.
The invitation to Hizbullah largely puts an end to hopes articulated in Jerusalem after Sarkozy's election victory that he might be persuaded to place Hizbullah on Europe's list of terrorist organizations, a position that was opposed by Chirac.
"The objective is to restore confidence between parties. We have the opportunity to end the conflict, and not talking to them [Hizbullah] would mean neglecting the Lebanese political situation, where Hizbullah is an important component," the French Foreign Ministry official said. The official also said that even though the "guest list" had yet to be finalized, Hizbullah would definitely be there and involved in the negotiations.
Asked if the France was concerned about international criticism for inviting Hizbullah, which Israel, the US and a number of other countries consider a terrorist organization, the official said the priority was Lebanon's stability, not France's image.
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said they were not surprised by the invitation to Hizbullah, and that it must be seen within the context of Paris's decision to invite all the major players in Lebanon to the conference.
Lebanon has faced a political deadlock since November, when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet, charging it was violating the power-sharing arrangements drawn up after the 1975-90 civil war. The current wave of violence between Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian group with suspected al-Qaida and Syrian ties, and the Lebanese army has not let up since it began on May 20.
France's readiness to engage Hizbullah politically was foreshadowed by remarks Sarkozy made to the Post in a pre-election interview, when he said it would be counterproductive to place Hizbullah on the EU's terrorist list, but that if Hizbullah wanted to be treated as "the political party that it claims to be, then they must act us such."
France, along with other EU nations such as Sweden, Greece and Spain, have long argued against placing the Islamist organization on the list, saying that it also has a legitimate political component, and that it would be a mistake to delegitimize a movement that provides political representation for a large and growing segment of Lebanon's population.
"We are for the disarmament of Hizbullah. We were the first to support UN Security Council Resolution 1559, and for years we have been trying to turn them into a purely political entity," the French official added. Resolution 1559 called, among other things, for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of the armed militias there.
Former French ambassador to Syria Jean-Claude Cousseran organized the Paris conference after meeting with several Lebanese political figures in Beirut last week.
Both Lebanon Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's Future Movements party and Hizbullah welcomed the French proposal. Hizbullah MP Hassan Hobballah told the Lebanese press, "We will deal positively with any initiative from any friendly or brotherly state that attempts to help Lebanon out of its crisis," but stressed that the solution to the unrest in the country must be based on the participation of all Lebanese political groups.
Hizbullah has 13 deputies in the Lebanese Parliament, but is widely seen as a rogue faction trying to take over the legislature from within. The Hizbullah lawmakers have blasted Saniora's government for not granting them important cabinet positions, and have accused the government of trying to squeeze them out.
Among those expected to attend the Paris conference will be representatives from pro-Syria Michel Aoun's opposition Free Patriotic Movement, who indicated at a meeting with Kouchner in Paris on May 28 that he would respond favorably to the proposal, as well as a delegation representing pro-Syria Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.