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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.

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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.

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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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