Tribunal now has a life apart from Lebanon politics

Lebanese politics are deeply personal, but the attack on Mr Hariri had its sights set on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

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Hizbollah didn't miss the chance to stick the knife in just a bit further. Withdrawing from the cabinet on Wednesday at the same hour that Saad Hariri visited the White House, the Shiite party and its allies demoted the prime minister and snubbed the Americans in a single stroke.

Lebanese politics are deeply personal, but the attack on Mr Hariri had its sights set on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating his father's assassination in 2005. On Tuesday, talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria broke down, talks which might have brought the two sides closer together. After that, Hizbollah's dissension was nearly inevitable.

The debate has always been whether the tribunal is worth the trouble. Is justice, if it's even possible, for Rafiq Hariri worth the very real threat of instability? Hizbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah has promised "to cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to prosecute his party's members for the murder. Mr Hariri has waffled, but now apparently refuses to disavow the tribunal entirely.

The collision has resulted in a caretaker government that will not be able to make any substantive decisions, even less so than the partisan cabinet of the last 14 months could. Lebanon's fear is always more violence, although there is little stomach among other communities to meet Hizbollah on the streets. What seems more certain is another period of political deadlock before a new government is formed.

The findings of the international tribunal may overtake domestic politics. Indictments could be handed to the pre-trial judge in the next few days. While it is only speculation, it would seem that Hizbollah at least expects that its members will stand accused.

Even if Mr Hariri bowed to Hizbollah's demands, quite likely an act of political suicide, the UN tribunal has crossed the Rubicon. Indictments, if they are forthcoming, will be passed to the judge regardless of domestic developments. Whether Hizbollah members could be brought to trial if accused is another question.

Mr Hariri may not lead the next cabinet; President Michel Suleiman has talks with parliament scheduled for Monday. Regardless, Lebanon's rival factions have the task they have always had: find a compromise to keep the peace in the complex confessional system left over from the 15-year civil war.

Time stopped in Lebanon when Rafiq Hariri was killed. In a country where political murders are almost routine, this one has shaped the landscape for five years. The answers in this crime may be unsatisfactory, but it is too late for them to be silenced entirely.