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'Least-worst' scenario for Hizbullah
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 12 - 2011

The Lebanese government has decided to fund the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Hague, staving off another collapse, reports Lucy Fielder from Beirut
In true Lebanese political style, it was a backroom deal rather than a showdown in the end. Prime minister Najib Mikati announced with minimal fanfare that Lebanon would be funding its share of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Hague, averting a crisis that could have brought down a government dominated by Hizbullah and its allies at a critical moment in the region.
Outwardly, it appears that parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a wily statesman with a knack for finding legal loopholes at times of crisis, discovered a way in which the prime minister could approve funding the Tribunal from a disaster fund without the cabinet's approval.
That enabled Lebanon to pay the 49 per cent of the court's running costs that it is obliged to fund, about $33 million this year, without getting a sign-off from ministers from Hizbullah, Berri's allied Amal movement or Christian leader Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, all of whom were against the funding.
Hizbullah has refused to rubber stamp the court, accusing the Hague-based Tribunal that was established to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri of being a US-Israeli tool ranged against it. In June, the court indicted four men believed to be Hizbullah members.
In January, the March 8 Alliance dominated by Hizbullah resigned from a Lebanese national-unity government headed by Al-Hariri's son Saad, bringing it down over the Tribunal issue. Mikati was then nominated as the new prime minister by the Alliance, with defecting MPs led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Since then, Mikati has made it clear that he supports funding the Tribunal and fears for the country if its international obligations are not met. The court was established under UN auspices with the approval of the then Lebanese government, headed at the time by Fouad Al-Siniora, though critics say the decision required presidential approval and was unconstitutional.
Given that he was appointed as a safe pair of hands, the showdown between Mikati and his own government over the Tribunal funding has confused analysts. Some have speculated that there was a backroom deal all along: under that scenario, Hizbullah and its allies kicked up a fuss, all the while knowing that Mikati would find a way out that would let everyone off the hook.
However, the heatedness of the debate suggests otherwise. Two weeks ago, Mikati threatened to resign during a television interview if Lebanon missed the December 15 deadline to find the funding. His decision would be made to protect the country, Mikati told the TV channel LBCI.
"I cannot imagine myself as prime minister with Lebanon under my mandate failing to honour its international obligations or isolated by the international community," he said. Washington had warned of "serious consequences" if Lebanon did not pay, and divisions between the government and opposition had sharpened over the issue.
Last week, ministers loyal to Aoun boycotted a cabinet session over the funding, citing the government's "poor performance" since it was appointed in June -- a statement that raised eyebrows since most ministers are from Aoun's movement.
Perhaps most tellingly, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah criticised Mikati in a speech on television after the funding was handed over, making it clear that Hizbullah had chosen internal stability over risks of a government collapse.
However, Nasrallah questioned whether Mikati's payment had been constitutional and said the prime minister had "embarrassed himself" by funding the court over the objections of his allies. "We have the right to blame Mikati. He brought matters to a head when he announced his desire to resign if the funding issue was voted down," Nasrallah said.
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Beirut-based Hizbullah expert, said the criticism, combined with Nasrallah's reputation for straight talking, suggested the spat between Hizbullah and Mikati was more than mere theatrics, although it was unclear why Hizbullah would have endorsed the latter and then been disappointed when he had stuck to a position he had made clear all along.
"It's difficult to second-guess, but there must have been some kind of agreement such that Mikati didn't resign and destabilise the country," Saaf-Ghorayeb said. This impression of prior knowledge and tacit approval was reinforced by the absence of pressure on Mikati to resign once he announced the payment had been made.
Saad-Ghorayeb pointed out that the stakes were much higher for Hizbullah and its ally Syria than they were when it had toppled the Lebanese government in January. "Syria will never be the same again, and Iran is subject to daily pressure. For Hizbullah, it would not have been a good time for the 14 March Alliance to take over, assuming that could have happened," she said.
Even stalemate and paralysis at the top would have shone the international spotlight on Lebanon at a time of heightened US interest in the collapse of the regime in Syria, to the detriment of Damascus's allies.
Officials at the Tribunal in the Hague had made it clear that the workings of the court would not be affected whether Lebanon paid up or not, making the row one about Lebanon observing its international obligations and avoiding pariah status. It is this that appears to have been Mikati's main concern, along with his status among his constituents who are largely Sunni and are supportive of the Tribunal.
Hizbullah's rejection of al-Hariri's government in January had been caused by fears that it would rubber-stamp the funding, Saad-Ghorayeb said. The group's concern was that Lebanon would enter into potential military or security cooperation, such as pursuing suspects and attempting to apprehend them, a likely recipe for armed stand-off.
"The current interior minister [Marwan Charbel] is not close to Hizbullah, but he knows better than to try and track the suspects down," she said. "Funding is one thing. Cooperation is another."
In his speech, Nasrallah brought up two long-standing 8 March complaints about the handling of the al-Hariri case: the "false witnesses" who had come forward with testimony of Syrian involvement and then retracted it, and the four generals who were arrested on the back of that supposed evidence and held for nearly four years without charge. The generals were eventually released in 2009 as a result of a lack of evidence against them.
Many analysts now feel that Mikati will be required to resolve these issues as amends for funding the court. The March 8 Alliance wants Lebanon's Higher Judicial Council to investigate the false witnesses, arguing that this could lead to al-Hariri's killers and unravel what it claims is a conspiracy.
They Alliance also points to the looming deadline for Lebanon to renew its agreement with the Tribunal, which expires in March. Many feel that Hizbullah will bide its time, but still insist on sweeping changes to Lebanon's agreement with the court.
Columnist in the pro-government Al-Akhbar newspaper Nicolas Nassif wrote of an emerging "crisis of confidence" between Mikati and Hizbullah. "Nasrallah came up with a list of demands for the prime minister to make amends for the shaken confidence between them," he wrote.
These include referring the false witnesses issue to the Judicial Council for investigation, "restoring respect to the four generals" and the issue of appointments -- an apparent reference to the upcoming re-appointment of the council president. "Major obstacles stand in the way of these demands being met, and overcoming them will not be easy without their being eroded by some hard negotiations," Nassif wrote.


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