Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lebanon’s vacuum should push all sides to compromise

The optimism greeting the formation of a Lebanese government weeks ago soon gave way to pessimism, as the different political alignments failed to agree to a policy statement. If no statement is approved, either a new government would have to be formed, or the present government would continue in a caretaker capacity.

The main bone of contention is how to refer to the resistance, a byword for Hizbollah, and its independent weapons arsenal. This has divided two of the principal forces in the government of prime minister Tammam Salam: the March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, and the March 8 coalition, which is led by Hizbollah and is allied with ministers named by Michel Aoun.

Hizbollah is keen to have a policy statement that legitimises the resistance, in that way securing implicit approval for the party’s retention of its weapons. March 14, in contrast, wants a statement that places the resistance under the authority of the state.

A ministerial committee set up to draft the policy statement has reached deadlock. On Tuesday, it decided to send the matter back to the full cabinet, which meets on Thursday, to try to find a solution.

In the past, a clash was averted through a compromise formula that affirmed a triad between the people, the army and the resistance. While March 14 accepted this, it was never truly satisfied with a sentence that placed the army and the resistance on the same level.

When Mr Salam’s government was formed, certain groups in March 14 criticised Mr Hariri for entering into a coalition with Hizbollah, particularly after its military intervention in the Syrian conflict. This pushed March 14 to take a firmer line on Hizbollah’s role and weapons.

Hizbollah has also refused to be flexible. The party sees no reason to make any concessions, feeling that it is regaining the initiative in Syria, alongside the regime of president Bashar Al Assad. It seeks to reflect and anchor this reality in the Lebanese system. The party’s goal is to strengthen its hold over Lebanon this year – first by bringing in a friendly president in May, then by winning a majority, with its allies, in parliamentary elections scheduled for November.

The parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, and the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt have presented a compromise, based on a statement by Lebanon’s Aounist foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, at an Arab League foreign ministers meeting last week. Mr Bassil defended Lebanon’s right to “resist any Israeli aggression or occupation with all legitimate and available means”. Reportedly, his remarks were coordinated with president Michel Sleiman and Mr Salam.

Mr Berri and Mr Jumblat hope an expanded version can serve as the basis for a statement all sides can accept. Hizbollah has the means to block any measure that officially challenges its arsenal. If the minimal benchmark for March 14 is to force Hizbollah to recognise the predominance of the state in national defence, then this may be an ambition too far, and the price could be a perpetual inability to form unity governments.

On the other hand, the Berri-Jumblatt proposal, while it merely sidelines the problem, would have the advantage of doing two things, albeit limited in scope: getting rid of the contentious triad that placed the resistance and the army on the same level; and inherently reaffirming that whatever Hizbollah does, it cannot avoid rising opposition to its weapons from other political groups in Lebanon.

That may not be much, but there is no direct way to push Hizbollah to surrender its weapons, which are essential to its identity and give it political relevance. At best, its adversaries must try to create political contexts that make it increasingly difficult and costly for the party to retain weapons. However, this is much easier said than done.

That’s why Hizbollah is focused on ensuring that it can consolidate its hold over Lebanon in the coming months. It is convinced that developments in Syria permit this. If it can bring in a president who defends its interests, followed by a parliamentary majority later in the year, it would control the three principal governing institutions in the Lebanese state, giving it greater latitude to protect its weapons.

That is why March 14 would do better to prepare itself for the likely battles ahead over the next president and a parliamentary election law. Already, March 14 and Mr Jumblatt, along with a number of independents, hold a parliamentary majority that can elect a president, or block a Hizbollah candidate they don’t want.

More complicated is agreeing to an election law. Last year, March 14 split over a draft proposal, with the Christian parties supporting a law that would have benefited them, but that was to the disadvantage of the Future Movement. Unless the coalition can coordinate its efforts and avoid such a scenario again, Hizbollah will exploit the differences to push through a law that is to its own benefit.

Mr Salam’s government is not expected to last for very long. Once a president is elected, a new cabinet will come in. Yet there remains a distinct possibility that there will be no accord over a replacement for president Michel Sleiman. If so, Mr Jumblatt, insisting that all major decisions must be taken by consensus, may refuse to side with March 14 behind any candidate rejected by Hizbollah.

If there is a void in the presidency, Mr Salam could conceivably remain in place longer than expected. For now, however, some sort of compromise over a cabinet statement remains a distinct possibility. In agreeing to join a government after a 10-month hiatus, the parties saw a pressing need to fill the debilitating vacuum in Beirut. That imperative remains as relevant today as it was then.

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