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Lebanon Approaches Tipping Point

Council on Foreign Relations
Lebanon Approaches Tipping Point
By Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
January 24, 2011

Lebanon's increasingly assertive Hezbollah faction has said it would nominate for prime minister a fifty-five-year-old billionaire businessman, Najib Mikati. The emergence of a Hezbollah government--backed by allies Iran and Syria--would almost certainly set Lebanon on a collision course with the United States and its allies about the fate of the UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri.

A vote could come today as parliament meets to nominate a prime minister to head a new government. Hezbollah set off a political crisis on January 12 after withdrawing from the coalition led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri, serving as caretaker prime minister for the past twelve days, has refused to renounce a UN-backed tribunal investigating his father's assassination, which is expected to implicate members of Shiite group Hezbollah. Hariri says he will not take part in any government led by Hezbollah and its allies.

Over the weekend, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said his movement would respect Lebanon's institutions and tradition of consensus if Hezbollah shaped the next government. To nominate a prime minister, Hezbollah and its allies--which have 57 seats in the 128-member Parliament--need 64 votes. Saad Hariri's coalition has 60, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has 11.

Last week, Jumblatt withdrew support from the Hariri government--and by extension for the tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination--and said he would back Hezbollah. After the Hariri assassination, Jumblatt had called for the United States to expand its invasion of Iraq into Lebanon. Al-Jazeera calls this recent "kingmaking" move by Jumblatt, who leads the Druze minority, a return to his "pre-2005 politics, when he viewed Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement against Israel, and officially brings his flirtation with pro-Western positions--which contradict his family's long history of alliances with the left and pan-Arab nationalists--to an end."

The potential power shift in Lebanon has resulted in a flurry of regional and other diplomatic activity. Iran's acting foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, and Syria's top diplomat, Walid Muallem, met in Damascus over the weekend and issued a statement backing a "Lebanese solution for Lebanon". French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hosting a meeting Monday with the foreign ministers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to form a contact group following up on the prospects of the Lebanese ruling bloc.

There are some reports that the United States might withdraw military aid to Lebanon if a Hezbollah-led government emerges. There reportedly has been no official comment from Washington on the possible power shift in Lebanon, but a Haaretz news analysis notes that "U.S. aid is meant to help Lebanon implement UN Resolution 1701, which calls on the Lebanese Army to deploy throughout the country . . . and prevent Hezbollah from acquiring more weapons." Israel is concerned both about the ascendance of Hezbollah as well as the possibility of violence spilling over the Israel-Lebanon border.

Analysis

Hezbollah is reliant on Iran but is hardly its proxy, argues CFR's Mohamad Bazzi, who says the group's power feeds on the weakness of Lebanon's government. In this op-ed (http://www.cfr.org/publication/23800/un_tribunal_is_not_the_source_of_lebanons_political_woes.html), Bazzi argues that Lebanon is looking into a political abyss.

Pending indictments in a UN tribunal into the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri could point to Syria and Hezbollah. Lebanon expert Michael Young says all sides, including Saudi Arabia and the United States, are scrambling to deal with the impact of the findings.

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