Nearly six years after the horrific attack, reverberations from the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rakif al-Hariri continue to rock Lebanon. As an international tribunal prepared to hand down indictments against the perpetrators, Cabinet ministers from parties aligned with the suspects resigned, toppling the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the son of the target of the 2005 bombing. These politicians want to force Lebanon to choose between justice and stability. They ignore the fact that there cannot be stability without justice.
Rafik al-Hariri died in a massive car bombing in February 2005. The attack claimed 21 lives and wounded 100 others, depriving Lebanon not only of its prime minister and wealthiest citizen, but a virtual dynamo who was committed to the renovation of the country and its re-emergence from decades of bloodshed and violence. The killing triggered the “Cedar Revolution” that helped push Syrian forces, which had virtually annexed Lebanon, out of the country and restored Lebanon’s sovereignty.
The Cedar revolutionaries also demanded establishment of an independent tribunal to discover who had killed Hariri. At first, suspicions fell upon Syria and its allies in Lebanon, with the reasoning that Syria wanted the state weak so that it would be unable to counter the extension of Syrian influence to Lebanon as well as claims that Damascus’ presence was stabilizing. Syria’s opponents claimed that even if Damascus was not officially responsible for the attack, its grip on the state was so tight that no such incident could occur without its knowledge. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals were held in connection with the incident, but they were eventually released for lack of evidence.
A United Nations tribunal was established in March 2009. Its investigation has proceeded with deliberation and it is reported to be preparing to release its first indictments for the assassination. But the prospect of charges being leveled against members of Hezbollah prompted that group to withdraw from the Unity government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. The resignation of its 10 Cabinet members, along with the resignation of an 11th member who represented the president of Lebanon (and who is allied with Hezbollah), triggered the collapse of the government.
Hezbollah has been pressing Mr. Hariri to disavow the international investigation. It views the tribunal as either a tool of Western imperialism or the handmaiden of Israeli interests.It also insists that it had no role in the bombing. Mr. Hariri is not convinced. He also knows that if he bows to Hezbollah’s demands, he would lose the backing of many of his own supporters.
Meanwhile, representatives from Syria and Saudi Arabia were trying to forge a deal that would defuse the situation. Saudi Arabia backs Mr. Hariri, while Syria is one of Hezbollah’s patrons. The two governments had worked for five months to come up with a compromise that would satisfy both sides. Hezbollah’s walkout suggests that the effort failed. Hezbollah blamed the United States for scuttling any deal.
Hezbollah leaders have made it clear that they will surrender none of their supporters to the tribunal. The impact of that refusal is magnified by the fact that Hezbollah is also the largest armed force in Lebanon. There are fears now that the collapse of the government could usher in another period of unrest like that of May 2008 when a previous government in Beirut tried to move against Hezbollah. Then, there was street fighting and months of violence. That ended only when Mr. Hariri cobbled together his unity government, but it too has been hobbled by discord and dissent.
Simply put, Hezbollah is demanding that Mr. Hariri and the Lebanese people choose between justice and stability. They are holding out the threat of renewed and prolonged violence to force the government to shelve its efforts to find Rafik al-Hariri’s murderers. This threat is part of a larger proxy war being fought over Lebanon’s independence. Syria’s influence, which was thought to be diminishing in the aftermath of the Cedar Revolution, is on the rise again. This has broader repercussions as Lebanon is used as a proxy for Syrian interests in Damascus’ fight with Israel. Hezbollah has instigated clashes between Israeli forces and Lebanese militias and even triggered all-out war in 2006.
Mr. Hariri must not bow to Hezbollah’s threats. But his government is weak and he cannot stand up to Hezbollah alone — and certainly not when it is backed by Syria and Iran. Other Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf governments should be the prime minister’s chief supporters. They have no desire to see the spread of the radical Shiite version of Islam propagated by Iran and its proxies.
Israel too has a role to play. It cannot be seen as backing a government merely so that it can manipulate it as Damascus does. A Lebanese government that defends Lebanese national interests would be a force for stability and peace in the region. It would be a real buffer between Israel and Syria and offer a genuinely participatory government for the diversity of cultures in Lebanon. Of course, its ability to ensure justice for all its citizens would enhance its legitimacy even more.
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