A divorce that Nasrallah cannot afford

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Sunday formalized Hezbollah’s divorce from the rest of Lebanese society, confirming there is a fundamental rift between the party and a majority of Lebanese over a vision for Lebanon. But the rhetoric was also something more prosaic. It echoed a statement last week by the former minister Wiam Wahab, one of Syria’s licensed local spokesmen, that negotiations over the distribution of portfolios in the government had become “stupid , and that a more fundamental change in the political system was now needed. Both points Nasrallah combined in a key passage of his address. Lebanon was passing through a “fateful and important period of its history, he argued, and “the issue is not one of [an] 11-19 [distribution of ministers in the government] or 17-13; it is much deeper than that. The real issue was one of control, with the parliamentary majority seeking to impose its writ on the whole country with international, particularly American, encouragement. The only way Lebanon could emerge from its crisis was through new elections or a referendum. The Hariri tribunal would only be endorsed once the opposition introduced changes in the text, and would have to be approved by the government in a session hosted by President Emile Lahoud. The tribunal itself might be formed only after the United Nations investigation of Rafik Hariri’s assassination was completed (though, Nasrallah insisted, the judgment had already been made). And Nasrallah described the four generals who are suspects in the assassination as “political prisoners who had to be released. While there is a majority as well as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora who are taking the Security Council route to establish the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the secretary general merely reiterated Syria’s line on the Lebanese deadlock. He reaffirmed that Hezbollah’s conflict with its adversaries is an existential one and, rashly, made Shiites the first line of defense in protecting Hariri’s killers. Nasrallah ruled out a civil war, and his threat that the opposition would be willing to stick to its position for two more years, until Parliament’s mandate ended, suggested he is not looking for an imminent escalation. Instead, the opposition’s tactic is to wear the system down through inertia, even if economic disaster is the result. Nasrallah’s aim is to gain time for his Syrian allies, push the international community and the Arab world to exasperation or hesitation, so they will approve of a revitalized Syrian role in Lebanon, and, by so doing, guarantee that Hezbollah will be able to remain a military organization as well as a political one. Nasrallah was right. Lebanon’s destiny is indeed being determined today. Will the country once again become that freewheeling liberal outpost open to both East and West that it was before 1975, and which Hariri tried to recreate? Or will it become the pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian garrison state of which Nasrallah dreams, one that would allow his party to retain its weapons and secure a future as the militant vanguard of a society whose obsession would be self-defense against proliferating foes? Nasrallah claims that he has a majority of Lebanese on his side. That’s untrue since even Hezbollah’s main allies in the Aounist movement don’t share the secretary general’s austere designs for Lebanon, at least if their political program is to be believed. One has to wonder what Michel Aoun thought of Nasrallah’s statements. Does it take much more for him to realize that, in the unlikely event he were ever to become president, the primary obstacle to implementing his own ideal of the Lebanese state would be Hezbollah’s ideal of the Lebanese state? In this context, what about Nabih Berri? The speaker has tried unsuccessfully to maneuver between Nasrallah’s increasingly unyielding conditions, the majority’s growing impatience with Berri’s refusal to convene Parliament, and Syria’s intransigence on the tribunal. Last week Berri proposed a massive airlift of Lebanon’s politicians to Saudi Arabia so they could be reconciled under the kingdom’s auspices. His rationale seems to have been that because King Abdullah could not abide failure, such a gathering would induce the Saudis to pressure the majority into being more conciliatory toward Berri’s plans. This wasn’t the first time that Berri had imagined a Saudi solution. Several weeks ago, the speaker sent a document to the kingdom in which he made suggestions on resolving the current crisis. He reportedly accepted that the tribunal should be approved first, before agreement on a new government. The opposition would make amendments to the tribunal’s statutes, but this would be done promptly, without emptying the tribunal of its clout. Then a government would be formed on a 19-11 basis, with a promise that opposition ministers would not resign before the end of Emile Lahoud’s term in order to bring the government down and impose an opposition candidate as president. This government would then approve the tribunal, as would Lahoud, resolving the crisis. The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul Aziz Khoja, liked the idea, which might explain why he was full of praise for Berri recently, after the speaker made a speech harshly criticizing the majority. However, the majority was displeased with the implications of Berri’s proposals, particularly its setting precedents that might discredit the Siniora government’s past actions, and made this known in Riyadh. The Saudis sensed the complications in accepting Berri’s scheme, which is perhaps why they showed so little enthusiasm for the speaker’s offer last week. Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt shot Berri’s idea down by insisting that a Saudi reconciliation should only be icing on a prior inter-Lebanese settlement. Nasrallah’s address on Sunday raised the stakes by showing this was not about to happen. It was also his way of warning that a Chapter VII tribunal might generate sectarian discord inside Lebanon, an argument that raises powerful doubts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The UN is where all major matters Lebanese are likely to be decided in the coming months. The Chapter VII tribunal bazaar has been opened. Ultimately, the outcome will in all probability be decided at the level of heads of state, not foreign ministers. Nasrallah has gambled on behalf of his Syrian allies, but if the tribunal is approved, does Hezbollah really want to be out on a limb in confronting the international community and Lebanon’s Sunnis, who want justice in the Hariri case? The party seems to have forgotten that it needs a Lebanese consensus to protect itself down the road. As things stand, however, Nasrallah is making that impossible. Michael Youngis opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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