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LEBANON: Qatar emerges as diplomatic powerhouse

May 15, 2008 |  2:30 pm

Pity Amr Moussa.

HamadFor months the dour Arab League secretary-general shuttled between his Cairo home and the Lebanese capital in a futile attempt to get Lebanese factions to talk, only to walk away in abject failure.

Then along came a smiling Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, foreign minister and prime minister of Qatar.

In a space of hours, he appears to have done what neither Moussa nor French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (who also spent many fruitless weeks trying to solve the Lebanese mess) have  been able to do: get these guys locked in a room together to hammer out some kind of agreement.

During the news conference announcing a new deal between fighting Lebanese factions, Sheik Hamad spoke gently but firmly to the whole country, as if they were adults who must take charge of their own country:

The Lebanese people will have to help us. As Lebanese, you have to accept that this is your wound. You will have to heal it. … All the Arabs are with you, but you have to exert your own efforts. You as Lebanese have to decide to end this crisis.

Sheik Hamad also said: “Everyone knows that there is no winner in this.”

Except for maybe the sheik himself, who emerged as a diplomatic rock star.

He put on a heck of a performance.

During the news conference, he delicately called a Lebanese government’s now-rescinded decision to target Hezbollah’s intelligence and telecommunications networks a “misunderstanding.”

He resisted attempts to lure him into bashing Saudi Arabia, the longtime Qatari rival that sat out this diplomatic effort because of perceptions it was biased in favor of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

He gently chided reporters for bombarding him with pointed questions pleading with them to give the visiting Arab diplomats “a chance to sleep."

And he did it all with a toothy smile that wowed the Lebanese used to a week of grim-faced pols getting on the television and direly predicting the end of days if their demands were not met.

“It’s a real breakthrough,” Sami Nader, a professor of political science at St. Joseph University in Beirut. “It’s a small victory for Arab diplomacy, Qatar in particular. Qatar was at an equal distance from all the powers. It has close ties with Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia.”

Sheik Hamad’s tiny Persian Gulf peninsula-state has friendly ties to both Iran and the United States, Hezbollah and Israel, giving him credibility with all sides. After the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Qatar stepped up with millions in reconstruction aid, a move that endeared the oil-rich country to many Lebanese.

Still, some say Sheik Hamed was more lucky than good, arriving in Lebanon just as the country’s factions had stared into the abyss of another civil war and appeared ready to step back.

“The lesson to be drawn is that the notion of an international community wheeling and dealing and imposing itself cannot work unless the real situation on the ground allows it,” said Karim Makdissi, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani gestures during a press conference in Beirut. Credit: AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR

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