Coalition agreement not Withstanding, Hizbullah will continue to hold Sway in Lebanon

Jerusalem Post- 13/11/2009

Following statements from both government and opposition sides in Lebanon over the weekend, it now looks likely that Prime Minister-elect Saad Hariri will announce the formation of a new governing coalition in the next few days.

The announcement that a deal has been reached on a unity government was made by the Hizbullah-led March 8 opposition movement after a meeting on Friday.

The details of the deal have not yet been made clear, but it appears that the main stumbling blocks have been overcome.

The formation of a new government will bring to an end four months of political paralysis in Lebanon, following the victory of the pro-western March 14 coalition in general elections in June.

However, the new government will have no bearing on the key political fact looming over Lebanon today: namely, the existence of a parallel state maintained by Hizbullah, which makes its decisions without consulting the nominal rulers of the country.

The deadlock regarding the formation of the government was itself related to the agenda of the Hizbullah parallel state. It is worth remembering that agreement for the formula of cabinet appointments was reached in July. But this agreement solved little.

Hariri was determined to prevent the opposition from obtaining veto power in the new government. To exercise a veto over cabinet decisions, the opposition needed to control at least 11 portfolios in the 30-member cabinet – that is, one-third plus one of the cabinet seats.

In July, both sides accepted a formula of 15 portfolios for the March 14 coalition, 10 for the opposition, and five to be appointed by President Michel Suleiman.

The key issue then became the identity of the ministers to be appointed by the president. If only one of them were to be inclined toward the opposition, this would mean that Hizbullah would effectively have kept the veto it exercised before June. Since the final names have not yet been announced, it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions in this regard.

It looks likely, however, that Hariri has compromised in another key area.

Hariri announced after the election that he was determined to keep the Telecommunications Ministry for his party. The Hizbullah-led opposition was equally determined to obtain this portfolio for themselves.

Hizbullah maintains a large-scale independent communications network which is an essential part of its military stance vis a vis Israel. Its determination to keep this network away from government scrutiny was one of the factors that triggered the fighting in Beirut in May 2008.

Hizbullah at that time acted decisively to prevent any government interference with its independent communications. Possessing the telecommunications ministry is a way to ensure no further possible unwanted scrutiny.

Reports suggest that Hariri has conceded this portfolio to the opposition. The prime minister-elect has apparently prevailed in his demand that Jebran Bassil, son-in-law of former Gen. Michel Aoun, not occupy this post. But the portfolio looks set to go instead to another member of Aoun’s party, which is aligned with Hizbullah.

Hizbullah itself, it appears, will have two posts in the new cabinet.

Hariri, in a recent statement to the media, sought to display his Arab nationalist colors, asserting that Hizbullah would be in the cabinet, whether Israel liked it or not. It is also the case that Hizbullah will continue to do what it wants in Lebanon – whether Saad Hariri likes it or not.

In the May 2008 fighting, Hizbullah reconfirmed that its parallel structures are off limits to the government of Lebanon. It did this by demonstrating its effective monopoly of the means of violence.

Such a monopoly remains the ultimate source of political power. This was the case before the June elections, remained the case after them, and will remain so regardless of the precise coalition arithmetic.

As the seizure of the Francop arms ship last week showed, Hizbullah and its backers are busily engaged in preparing for the next round of fighting with Israel. The precise timing and nature of the conflict to come will be determined without reference to the wishes of the new Lebanese cabinet, whatever its eventual makeup.

A report in a British newspaper on Sunday quoted Hizbullah fighters as openly admitting the extent of their rearmament efforts. In a statement which says much more about who makes the key decisions in Lebanon than any details regarding the coalition, a Hizbullah gunman was quoted as saying “Sure, we are rearming, we have even said that we have far more rockets and missiles than we did in 2006.”

This statement confirms Israeli assessments. By making it, the unnamed Hizbullah man cheerfully shows his contempt for Security Council Resolution 1701, the UN forces deployed to enforce it, and those Lebanese who might want their country to be something other than a springboard for war.

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as a famous Chinese leader once said. In Lebanon, the guns are in the hands of Hizbullah.

This is the salient point. All else is detail.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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