By Tony Karon
Even as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday for urgent talks over the future of his government, Hizballah decided to pull the plug on that government and leave Hariri's status uncertain. Eleven ministers from the Shi'ite Islamist party and its allies resigned from the Cabinet and demanded the formation of a new government, leaving Hariri unable to govern. The collapse of yet another fragile consensus government once again raises the specter of Lebanon's descending into a new cycle of sectarian violence - but it could also simply be a hardball negotiating tactic by Hizballah to cement its position and highlight the limited power of its enemies, including the U.S., to manage events in Lebanon.
The Hizballah walkout was prompted by the collapse of a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria under which the Lebanese government would distance itself from the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in February 2005. Although Syria was initially widely blamed for the killing, it has been reported that the U.N. tribunal will in fact indict members of Hizballah, the Iran-backed movement whose militia remains the single most powerful military force in Lebanon, and whose electoral support in the Shi'ite community gives it a central role in government. Hizballah had warned for months that it would not allow the arrest of any of its members, and branded the U.N. tribunal a Western-Israeli plot to undermine the movement. The U.S. has insisted throughout the crisis that the interests of political stability cannot be allowed to impede the pursuit of justice in the Hariri murder.
The Saudi-Syria deal was a bitter pill for both Hariri and the Saudis (who had been Rafiq Hariri's principal regional allies), but it reflected the stark realities of power on the ground in Lebanon. The latest government - in which Hizballah had an effective veto power - was created in early 2008, after the Shi'ite movement's militia thrashed those of its rivals in a short, sharp confrontation on the streets of Beirut. That clash was sparked by government attempts to limit Hizballah's independent military capacity in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions. While the Bush Administration enthusiastically backed Saad Hariri's previous government (comprised of anti-Syria, anti-Hizballah elements), it was unable to help him win the battle for the streets. That same grim reality, and the need to avoid another Lebanese civil war, prompted the Saudis to work with Syria on a deal to avert a showdown. But Hariri appears to have balked at accepting a deal that would block the U.N. tribunal from implementing its findings - a position Hizballah claims was backed by the Obama Administration.
"Saad Hariri was on the brink of making a major concession as concerns the tribunal, but occult forces prevented him from doing so," Druze leader and former Hariri ally Walid Jumblatt told the AFP without elaborating.
What we have then is another high-stakes game of chicken between the two sides in a regional cold war that pits the U.S. and its allies (like Saudi Arabia) against Iran, Syria and their allies. Except this time, fearful of the consequences, Riyadh and Damascus had tried to avoid a showdown. It remains to be seen how Hariri's key Western backers, the U.S. and France, plan to play the crisis. But all sides on the ground in Lebanon have a stake in avoiding a new civil war, which suggests that a resolution may yet be found in the realm of uncomfortable political accommodations.