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For Lebanon, a Hariri-led government may be its last chance

Oct 13,2020 - Last updated at Oct 13,2020

Lebanon’s political impasse, triggered by the August 4 Beirut Port explosion that forced Prime Minister Hassan Diab to resign, is not ending soon despite the fact that France has kept its initiative on the table until now. President Emanuel Macron has denounced the ruling political class in Lebanon for derailing the efforts of Prime Minister designate Mustafa Adib to form a non-partisan Cabinet of experts to salvage an economy in free-fall that has left more than half of Lebanon’s population in abject poverty. But he also knows that it is the same ruling elite that could approve a deal to name and support a new prime minister.

Lebanon’s last chance of recovering from a deep economic crisis is the French initiative that would deliver badly needed international aid. Standing in the way is the so-called Shiite duo; Hizbollah and Amal Movement. They insisted on taking the finance portfolio; setting a dangerous precedent for a country reeling from sectarian divisions and rivalries. A majority of Lebanese, who took to the streets last year and brought down the beleaguered government of Saad Al Hariri, want a new political deal that shuns the sectarian power sharing agreement that was reached in Taif in 1989.

Now Hariri is proposing himself as the only candidate that could break the stalemate. He certainly has the backing of Paris and is seen as a tested figure both locally and regionally. But the conditions for his success remain the same. He must be allowed to form an independent government that has the mandate to implement tough reforms that would repair Lebanon’s fractured image and restore the confidence of foreign donors as well as the Lebanese public. The coming few days will determine if that is Lebanon’s last chance of ending the current spiral and saving the French initiative.

Meanwhile, there is another twist in the conflicted Lebanese scene. Few weeks ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Lebanon had agreed to negotiate a maritime demarcation deal with Israel under UN auspices. Surprisingly, Hizbollah, which portrays itself as a staunch enemy of Israel, has not objected to bilateral talks. Lebanon claims that Israel has encroached on an 800 sq.km of its own waters. These waters are believed to be rich in natural gas which would provide an economic lifeline for struggling Lebanon.

Questions remain on who exactly will negotiate with the Israelis and whether the talks will extend to the disputed land borders along the 1949 armistice lines that include what Hizbollah considers as Israeli occupied Lebanese territory. The timing of this event is intriguing and comes as the Trump administration is pushing to add more countries to the growing list of countries that are normalizing ties with Israel.

But the US interests in Lebanon go beyond the issue of resolving maritime disputes. Washington sees Lebanon as part of its program to isolate Tehran and its regional proxies. It has listed Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation, as do a number of European countries, and it will put pressure on any new government to distance itself from the Iran backed militia.

Hizbollah, on the other hand, understands that it is being targeted at a crucial geopolitical moment. Iran is in no position to extend further financial help to its Lebanese proxy. Hizbollah’s role in smuggling fuel and other goods to Syria at the expense of the suffering Lebanese has hurt its image inside Lebanon and among the Shiite. Its alliance with President Michel Aoun, who has become increasingly unpopular, is becoming a liability for both. Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah may be regretting the fact that his party has gotten entangled in Lebanese politics. Macron has called on him to choose between being a political party or an armed militia.

Certainly, the biggest issue for Washington, as well as Israel, is the fate of Hizbollah’s arms. The party has become a state within a state and its agenda, an extension of that of Iran, has become a major destabilizing factor for Lebanon.

While Lebanon will not normalise ties with Israel anytime soon, the maritime demarcation talks will contain tensions along their common borders. Hizbollah’s acquiescence reflects its deep internal crisis. It has no choice but to back Hariri’s candidacy or face dire consequences both domestically and beyond. The alternative will mean chaos and may push Lebanon closer to a civil war.

With talks between Israel and Lebanon slated to begin as soon as next week it would be interesting to see how far Washington will be able to exert pressure on both in order to reach a historic agreement. Meanwhile, if Hariri is successful in forming an independent government, a window of hope will open for Lebanon to extract it from economic and social ruin. But the road towards reaching a new political deal for Lebanon is fraught with challenges as the country attempts to free itself from the clinches of Iranian interference.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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