by Franklin Lamb, South Beirut
“In case no one has noticed, the Obama administration just gifted Lebanon to Iran. Washington earlier presented Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Pakistan. Could it be clearer that Iran’s strategic trump card is America’s subservience to Israel? For Iran, Israel’s strangle hold on the US government is the gift that keeps on giving.” With his comment, my neighbor, Lebanese Human Rights Ambassador Ali Khalil, declared American hegemony in the region was on a slippery and descending slope and that yesterday’s political maneuvering in Lebanon likely accelerated American withdrawal .
My other neighbors in South Beirut appeared to go to bed early last night following the day’s events which saw the collapsed of Lebanon’s US-Saudi and Israeli backed government. Some, like my American and Lebanese roommates were planning for quick evacuations should our Hezbollah neighborhood-watch guys give us that special knock on the door. Two rapid raps and a shouted“Yalla!” (Let’s go) and it’s time to head north fast without looking back. The reason is because, like many here, some neighbors fear Israel might use this latest government crisis to invade Lebanon again.
Yesterday, our “government” electricity (and internet) was cut from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and again from 6 p.m. to midnight. At least ten hour daily power cuts is the norm south and north of the pro-US/Saudi Hamra “chic” district, where three hours or less daily power cuts are experienced. Spending lots of hours in candle light probably made the unsubstantiated rumors even more unsettling. “The armed forces of Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Iran are on military alert. The Americans may send battalions from Iraq!” the young man who works in the phone shop near my flat whispered. I could not help noticing that some of the young men normally hanging out in our hood seemed to have vanished. Even my phone card guy was impatient with me wanting to recharge my phone, “please hurry”, he said,”I have an appointment and need to close my shop.”
The assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri
The current government crisis has its origins in the February 14, 2005 Valentine’s Day murder of Lebanon’s prime minister Rafic Hariri and 20 others. The Bush administration declared Syria responsible and saw an opportunity to force the Assad regime to drop its friendship with Washington’s regional nemesis Iran, and to end its support for the National Lebanese Resistance led by Hezbollah.
One of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s State Department lawyers came up with the idea to use the UN Security Council to set up a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to try Hariri’s killers and to hammer Syria into warming to Israel and to US projects for the region.
What was not considered at the time, but later became a godsend from the points of view of Israel and the Bush administration was leaked STL information claiming that Hezbollah members might also be involved in the assassination. Hardly believing, one imagines, their really good luck, Israel and the US abruptly changed directions and decided to use the newly formed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to rid them of Hezbollah once and for all as well as to correct Syria’s behavior, believing that the Syrian government would also be indicted.
The pressure on Hezbollah caused the party to condemn what it claims is false witnesses and it strongly urged the Lebanese government to open a case against them and not allow the STL, which it and others believe has became fatally politicized by rushing to judgment, to receive Lebanese government cooperation. Hezbollah’s adversaries hailed the tribunal even if Lebanon’s stability was endangered. After nearly fourteen months of trying to get the Saad Hariri government to seriously reconsider its positions on the STL, the Hezbollah led opposition gave the majority an ultimatum either to call a cabinet meeting by January 12, 2011 to discuss the STL or the opposition Cabinet members would resign. What Hezbollah and its allies wanted was for PM Hariri to convene a Cabinet session to consider whether to stop payment of Lebanon’s 49 percent share of the financing of the STL, whether to withdraw the Lebanese judges from the tribunal, consider ending all cooperation with the STL, and prosecuting the “false witnesses” it claimed was linked to the UN probe into Rafik Hariri’s killing.
Under enormous pressure from Washington, Paris and Riyadh, Saad balked. The opposition quickly resigned. Under article 69 the Lebanese Constitution, the resignation of one-third plus one of Cabinet members automatically leads to the collapse of the 30-member government. It was the first time in Lebanon’s politically turbulent history that a government collapsed under pressure of the resignations of one-third plus one of its members.
In order to secure the eleventh cabinet resignation, to add to Hezbollah’s ten, in order to bring down the pro-US government, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s key political aide Hussein Khalil, called President Suleiman’s Cabinet designee, Sayyed Hussein. Khalil reportedly conveyed Nasrallah’s greetings and his hope that Hussein would decide what to do base on his conscience. Huyssein’s resignation quickly followed and Hariri’s Premiership ended as he sat with President Obama at the White House.
What the toppling of the Hariri government means for the near term?
Regional players reacted more or less predictably with the US accusing Iran, Syria and Hezbollah of ‘blackmail’, the French warning Syria that is would be held to account if there is violence in Lebanon and the British warning of long term dangers. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement: “This is an extremely serious development which could have grave implications for Lebanon and for regional stability.” One British diplomat added last this evening, “Good Grief, however can we resolve this problem anytime soon?”
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said they were "carefully following events" in Lebanon following the resignations and that "The Lebanese understand that an attempt by extremist to disturb the peace may turn out as a perilous gamble," according to Israeli TV Channel 10. Israel is being accused today in Lebanon of trying to provoke strife and to gain advantage from the governmental crisis. Yesterday after kidnapping Sharbel Khoury, a shepherd from near Rmeish (he was released 24 hours later) the Israel navy also entered Lebanese waters along the coast. This afternoon (1/13/10) Israeli warplanes overflew Baalbek, Nabatiyeh and Marjayoun. These incursions constituted Israel’s 7,269 and 7,270th violation of Lebanese sovereignty since the August 2006 adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 ordering it to stay out of Lebanon. Several UNIFIL and UN protests have had no effect on Israel while Washington remains mute on the subject of Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty.
Free Patriotic Movement member and Hezbollah supporter Jebran Bassil, who was Minister of Energy until yesterday, blamed Washington for the fact that Saudi-Syrian efforts to prevent the resignations, reached a dead end. “The other side bowed to external, especially American pressure, ignoring the advice and wishes of the Saudi and Syrian sides,” Bassil said.
For his part, Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Jumblatt seemed to agree with the FPM and he attributed the failure of mediation efforts of Saudi Arabia and Syria to the “forces of darkness,” alluding to leading Western powers, “It appears the forces of darkness got involved and stymied the Syrian-Saudi initiative, through which we would have seen a blocking of the negative repercussion of the STL indictment.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea blamed the rival March 8 camp for seeking what he called “Stalin-like” powers, accusing it of “seeking to steal away the prerogatives of the president and the prime minister.”
What next for Hezbollah?
The Hezbollah led opposition, as a result of the last election, has a majority in the 128-member Parliament, which enables it to name a candidate of its own for prime minister during the president’s soon to be announced binding parliamentary consultations. At noon on 1/13/10, Hezbollah voting bloc leader MP Mohammed Raad, announced that the opposition will name “a personality with a history of national resistance to head the new government.” Some are speculating that Hezbollah might propose the longtime Sunni leader Omar Karami, a moderate self effacing fellow with strong Syrian, progressive, and popular support.
Whatever it decides to do, Hezbollah may well take its time as it’s ponders major responsibilities that would envelope the resistance movement should it decide to govern Lebanon. Some of its supporters are urging Hezbollah to accept the daunting challenge and implement its 2009 Manifesto and its recent election platforms and end the mafia like corruption among some Lebanon’s political leaders. Several Lebanese civil society NGO’s are urging Hezbollah to do more for Lebanon’s increasingly fragile environment, fix once and for all Lebanon’s serious water, electricity and infrastructure problems, and let the Lebanese public decide if Hezbollah is true to their cause and warrants its future electoral support.
Others continue to also lobby the party to immediately end Lebanon’s and the Arabs shame and grant Palestinian refugees the internationally mandated basic civil rights to work and to own a home. If Hezbollah heads the government, Palestinian prospects for achieving these elementary rights may be realized sooner rather than later.
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