What Hezbollah wants from Lebanon's next government

Talks in Lebanon to form a new cabinet are set to begin Monday. Hezbollah pulled support from the government over opposition to a tribunal investigating the 2005 Rafik Hariri assassination.

By , Correspondent

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    Lebanon's Hezbollah party flags are seen in front of the United Nations headquarters (l.) and Arab Bank buildings in Beirut, Lebanon, on Jan. 13. Lebanon's president will launch formal talks on Monday on creating a new government after the resignation of Hezbollah ministers and their allies brought down Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's cabinet.
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While the collapse of its coalition government throws Lebanon back into political turmoil, this latest crisis for a nation accustomed to strife is unlikely to turn violent on the streets.

With Prime Minister Saad Hariri planning to return to Lebanon late Thursday from a globetrotting series of meetings with world leaders, consultations to select a new prime minister and form a new cabinet are expected to begin Monday. Still, finding a solution will not be easy given the bitter political divide in Lebanon over how to handle an international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and father of the current premier.

“This country does not have a mechanism to deal with this kind of conflict if there’s no regional agreement of some kind,” says Karim Makdissi, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut (AUB). “I don’t see how any faction in Lebanon can gain from this. I think it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone…. And of course ordinary people across all the [Lebanese] regions and sectors are going to suffer.”

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Lebanon’s 30-seat government collapsed Wednesday with the resignations of 11 ministers, including all 10 representing the parliamentary opposition headed by the militant Shiite Hezbollah. The abrupt move came after weeks of governmental deadlock and the failure of a regional mediation effort between Syria and Saudi Arabia to forge an amicable compromise.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman asked Prime Minister Hariri to oversee a caretaker government until a new coalition can be formed. That process involves the president consulting with members of parliament to nominate a new premier. Once a prime minister is selected, a tense and prolonged period of negotiation to form a government will likely follow.

Hariri tribunal nears a decision

An international tribunal based in The Netherlands is reportedly close to issuing the first set of indictments against those suspected of involvement in Rafik Hariri’s assassination six years ago. It has been widely reported that members of Hezbollah will be among the names listed. Hezbollah denies any involvement in the assassination and accuses the tribunal of serving the interests of Israel and the United States.

By toppling the government, analysts say, Hezbollah hopes either to establish a new government dominated by the parliamentary opposition that will then cease all cooperation with the tribunal, or leave Lebanon without a cabinet and unable to legitimately cooperate with any indictments issued by the tribunal in the coming weeks and months.

The tribunal includes Lebanese and international judges and is jointly funded by Lebanon and international donors. Even if a new Lebanese government was to withdraw its judges and end its financial contributions, the tribunal would continue to operate as it is mandated by the United Nations Security Council. The best Hezbollah can hope for is to build an anti-tribunal consensus in Lebanon.

Saad Hariri's future in question

For now, the parliamentary opposition here says it will not nominate Hariri, who has pledged his continued support for the tribunal, to head a new government. Mohammed Raad, a Hezbollah parliamentarian, said that the opposition would choose “a personality with a national resistance biography."

According to Lebanon’s Constitution, the prime minister must be drawn from the Sunni community. But few potentially eligible Sunnis will want to head an opposition-dominated government that plans to disavow a tribunal investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri, himself a powerful Sunni leader in Lebanon.

“There is no substitute for Prime Minister Saad Hariri to head the Lebanese government in the next phase because he enjoys an overwhelming support from the majority of Sunnis,” Antoine Zahra, a Christian parliamentarian allied to Hariri, told Al-Arabiya television channel.

Walid Jumblatt's role

The kingmaker here is Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and a veteran politician. Jumblatt’s bloc of MPs in the 128-seat parliament were part of the March 14 coalition of which Hariri is a leader, but in the past 18 months he has carved out a neutral position between March 14 and the Hezbollah-led opposition. If Jumblatt can be persuaded to ally his parliamentarians with the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, it will grant the opposition sufficient votes to name a prime minister of its choice, thus allowing a government to be formed and turning Hariri and his allies into the new opposition.

“That’s a possibility. It could be a drawn out [stalemate], but here Jumblatt holds the balance,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.

If Jumblatt declines to side with the opposition in naming a new prime minister, the prognosis ahead, analysts say, is total deadlock.

“I think we are heading toward a long political void that will last for months not weeks. No one will be able to form a government,” says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist for Lebanon’s As-Safir daily newspaper.

Lebanon is no stranger to political crises. Since 2005, the country has suffered political paralysis, governmental deadlocks, domestic strife, assassinations and bombings, a devastating war with Israel, and teetered briefly in 2008 on the brink of civil war.

Yet during the relative calm of the past 18 months, Lebanon was achieving high growth rates (about 8 percent in 2010) and the tourism sector, a traditional mainstay of the Lebanese economy, registered record numbers of visitors last summer.

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