Friday, July 12, 2013

Isolate Hezbollah, and dialogue with it

You wonder how Michel Aoun reacted to Nabih Berri’s announcement that the March 8 coalition was no more. After all, the general had long held that he was not a member of March 8, and that his alliance with its members was based on a memorandum of understanding signed with Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general.

March 14 has dismissed Berri’s statement as a tactical maneuver to secure a blocking third in the government. The reasoning is that as the Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal want five ministers in a government of 24, Aoun and his Christian allies, given their parliamentary representation, would be entitled to more than three ministers. This would hand Aoun, Hezbollah, and Amal the votes necessary to block any government decisions they don’t like.

That’s probably true, but it misses the point at two levels. It is virtually impossible to allocate shares in a government to avoid potential future alliances between different parties. To say that Aoun might side with Amal and Hezbollah on certain decisions, and to insist that this necessarily constitutes an unacceptable blocking third, means a prime minister must aim to put together a government where no possible combination of votes can defeat a decision.

The March 14 reaction also ignores the lessons of recent months in Lebanon. March 8 and March 14 have been internally divided by the contending political calculations of their members. The Christians in March 14 favored the Orthodox proposal against the wishes of other March 14 partners. And Aoun opposed an extension of parliament’s mandate, and refuses to extend the term of the army commander, Jean Kahwaji, against the preference of Hezbollah and Amal.

These constitute real differences, and nothing guarantees that they will not play out in a new government. The notion that Berri would engineer a bogus rift simply to acquire veto power is to assume that Aoun, Hezbollah and Amal are on the same wavelength, and that all signs to the contrary are an illusion. That’s not the case.

Aoun still has an ambition to become president. But the general can read the tea leaves. In wanting to extend Kahwaji’s term, Hezbollah has made its aim apparent, namely to keep the army commander in reserve for the presidency. By successfully extending parliament’s term, the party has also likely delayed President Michel Suleiman’s departure from office, pushing the next election until a time when Aoun will be too old to have a realistic chance of getting elected.

Rather than supinely denouncing Berri’s move as a ploy, March 14 could try to play on the differences between Hezbollah and Aoun. This would not please the Lebanese Forces, who regard any effort at rapprochement with Aoun as a threat, nor is it guaranteed of success. But the Saudis have shown a willingness to build up ties with the general, and have invited him to the kingdom. That creates an opening that March 14 might exploit to its advantage.

At the same time, and after the recent bomb blast in Bir al-Abed, much more can be done by leaders on both sides to calm sectarian tensions. If Berri’s announcement facilitates the formation of a new government, by suggesting that Hezbollah and Amal no longer insist on a blocking third, then Tammam Salam should grasp this to finalize his team. And he appears to want to do just that.

A new government is imperative, as most observers expect the bomb attacks to continue. Beyond the March 8-March 14 framework, it is necessary for the Lebanese parties to ameliorate communal relations, so that Sunni-Shiite animosity does not grow. Sunni political and religious leaders, perhaps meeting under the aegis of Dar al-Fatwa, could issue a statement warning against the targeting of the Shiite community and distancing themselves from such actions.

At the same time, Suleiman must try to revive the national dialogue as a forum to alleviate tensions. Hezbollah would welcome this, all the more so as it would provide some cover for its military actions in Syria. That is precisely why the Sunni community, and the Future Movement in particular, would hesitate to go along. However, the alternative, if a campaign of bomb attacks against Shiites begins, is that very quickly Sunnis in general will be associated with those planting the bombs. This must be avoided at all costs.

The choice is a stark one: Can the Sunni community find ways to calm the mood with Hezbollah and the Shiites, despite the party’s continuation of its campaign in Syria? Or do Sunni leaders refuse to do so, making more probable a sectarian conflict that would destroy Lebanon while doing nothing to help Assad’s foes in Syria?

March 14 had a similar choice to make when Fouad al-Siniora formed a government in 2005, and when Saad Hariri did the same in 2009. On both occasions, despite deep suspicions that Hezbollah had participated in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and March 14 figures, the answer was the same: normalize with Hezbollah and spare Lebanon Sunni-Shiite violence.

March 14’s belief that Bashar al-Assad’s fall was imminent is no longer relevant. The Syrian conflict will drag on for a long time, and Assad seems to have gained the upper hand. That means we are in an interregnum in which dealing with Hezbollah is a necessity. If attracting Michel Aoun away from the party can help balance the game somewhat, better still. It’s time for March 14 to be imaginative and flexible, qualities it has rarely displayed in recent years.    

No comments: