Friday, February 15, 2008

Hariri's murder is not a battering ram

There was alarm when Walid Jumblatt used the word "war" in a statement on Sunday in Baaqlin. The Druze leader's words were harsh, even if he did not say that he welcomed war, but only made his willingness to fight one conditional on the opposition's wanting war. But Lebanon has been split by a cold civil war for over a year now, and as the country commemorates the third anniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination today, Jumblatt's rhetoric may have, paradoxically, helped stabilize the situation - even if stabilization remains a relative concept.

The assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, whatever its larger implications, may actually bolster this modest stability. Hizbullah's leadership will likely need time to assess where it is, and what Mughniyeh's killing means for the party and its relations with Tehran.

Jumblatt surely calculated what he said based on a reading of the mood in Saudi Arabia and Russia, countries which he visited recently and that support the Arab League plan to elect General Michel Suleiman president. This must have made the Syrians perk up, particularly when Jumblatt said that Moscow had decided to pay into the fund for the Hariri tribunal. But the Druze leader, you have to suspect, was also sending a message to the Iranians, which went something like this: "Do you want your prize investment, Hizbullah, to be shattered by a Lebanese civil conflict?"

The comments of Jumblatt, but also those of Samir Geagea last week warning that there were Lebanese who sought a Syrian return, and Saad Hariri's promise to thwart Syrian and Iranian ambitions in Lebanon, were part of a package. In January, Hizbullah initiated a new strategy of organized street demonstrations, under the guise of social protests. The objective was to harass the army, undermine the presidential ambitions of Suleiman, and permit Syria to impose an alternative. But more generally, this threatened to shake confidence in the army - particularly when individuals began firing at soldiers - and therefore strike at the last remaining state institution that enjoys broad national backing.

The judicial inquiry into the Mar Mikhael deaths, but also the deep polarization that surrounded the episode, which isolated the Shiite parties, led to a suspension of efforts to erode the army's credibility. The recent March 14 statements were designed to shore up this interregnum. In so many words, Jumblatt warned that if weapons were used against the army again, it might be the majority that would respond.

Did he mean it? Probably not, but that's the point of brinkmanship. And since Hizbullah does not want a civil war any more than March 14 does, it will have taken that message to heart. The move may have also succeeded in blocking, or greatly delaying, a new recourse to the street by Hizbullah and Amal. In that way, March 14 managed to safeguard the army, which will only make Damascus more suspicious of a Suleiman presidency.

No one likes a balance of terror, but in some ways having one today may be preferable to what we had in the weeks when Hizbullah was looking to seize the initiative by blocking roads. But such a balance can only be meaningful if March 14 continues to respect the rule of law. A good start would be to permanently end the practice of shooting in the air when Saad Hariri Saad-Hariri-Profile Sep-07 speaks. Twice this happened last week, in what was an imitation of Hizbullah's response to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's appearances. If you claim to have confidence in the state, such behavior is counterproductive.

For March 14, the commemoration of Hariri's murder is seen as an opportunity to remind Syria's vice president, Farouq al-Sharaa, that Syria's friends in Lebanon are not as strong as he claimed last December. When asked in a Tuesday interview whether the Hariri tribunal was being politicized, Jumblatt answered that everything about the case was political. That's true in a way, and no amount of non-interference by the parliamentary majority will ever persuade Hizbullah of the contrary. However, March 14 errs in using the tribunal debate as a domestic battering ram. That will only polarize the Lebanese on the case, when the power of Hariri's death was that it unified most of them.

Several weeks ago, I interviewed Detlev Mehlis for The Wall Street Journal. Mehlis, the first commissioner of the United Nations-mandated team investigating the Hariri assassination, cast doubt on the work of his successor, Serge Brammertz. "I haven't seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward," Mehlis said.

He recalled that when, during the 1980s and 1990s, he headed the successful investigation of the LaBelle discotheque bombing in Berlin, an essential goal was to ensure the case stayed present in the public consciousness. "For years the LaBelle case dragged on with small successes and failures, but it was always kept alive on the prosecution's side by my working to inform the media; and on the victims' side because their families created pressure groups. I feel that in the Lebanese case, the families of the deceased can certainly play a much more active role."

The message to the victims was simple: stick to the rule of law, demand a thorough and open investigation, and force the international community to fulfill its promise of providing justice. That's why it is internationally that the Lebanese should be working the Hariri case, asking for more clarifications, particularly whether Mehlis is right about Brammertz.

Recently, the top UN legal official, Nicolas Michel, tried to reassure the Lebanese that the investigation and tribunal were moving forward. However, responding to a query from an Al-Hayat interviewer, Raghida Dergham, as to whether Brammertz had information contradicting Mehlis' conclusions, Michel answered, astonishingly: "If I knew the answer to your question this would indicate that I am interfering in the process. I am not, so I don't know the answer to your question."

But if anyone should know where the Hariri investigation is today, it is Michel. After all, he is the person setting up the tribunal's institutional and financial framework. Was he seriously suggesting that keeping abreast of the investigation would constitute interference? Michel will have a lot of egg on his face if there is not enough evidence in commissioner Daniel Bellemare's folder to take to trial this year.

Those are the issues March 14 should be raising, not adjusting their positions to the prospect that the tribunal will begin operating in June.

The majority's imposing a balance of power on the opposition may be the flip side of a strategy to move swiftly toward the trial of Hariri's assassins. That may be smart, or it may not be. But the tribunal must be shielded from domestic Lebanese power struggles, even as the UN needs to be pushed harder to clarify where the process is going. Michel did not do so.

Failing to question his vague statements doesn't honor Hariri's memory.

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