Since May 6 - the recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon – PM designate Saad Hariri has been trying to form a government that is supposed to be a national unity government, with fair representation by all the parties that constitute the Lebanese political scene. However, as one complication is resolved, another comes out, and it now seems that Hezbollah and its allies only want a majority government, where all Lebanon’s political, security, and military decisions will be made in Tehran.
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE CONDITIONS
At the beginning, it was conveyed that the main issue was an intra-Christian problem, where the Free Patriotic Movement (Aounists) and the Lebanese Forces (LF) were in disagreement on some of the portfolios. LF leader Samir Geagea insisted that the ministerial portfolios offered to his party were a "very big injustice" when compared with the size of its enlarged parliamentary bloc and the ministries offered to other groups. But the LF had decided earlier this week to take part.
Right after this decision, another complication aroused and brought the process back to square one.
Hezbollah proposed a new condition: it wants to see one of its Sunni allies appointed as a minister in the new government. Hariri has so far resisted this demand. But Hezbollah insists, saying that Hariri has lost more than one third of his seats in the election, to Sunni allies of Hezbollah.
In addition, Hezbollah is expected to take control of the health ministry, and to increase its number of ministers to three from two in the outgoing cabinet.
After the Defense, Education, and Interior Ministries, the Health Ministry commands Lebanon’s fourth-largest budget at $338 million per year. And while most of the money in the top three ministries is allotted to salaries, the majority of Health Ministry funds are given directly to the public.
Hezbollah’s health services—which include five hospitals and hundreds of medical centers, infirmaries, dental offices, and mental health providers—can barely meet the needs of wounded soldiers and their families, according to many local reports. Based on the average ratio of killed to wounded in modern combat, the group may have upwards of 9,000 such casualties to take care of. Worried about losing some of its funding from Iran – due to the increased US sanctions, and more shrinking of its services budget, especially the health services, Hezbollah believes that the Health Ministry can compensate for these potential losses.
However, Hariri does not object to Hezbollah getting this ministry, despite the many warnings coming from the US embassy in Lebanon and other international donors. The U.S. embassy in Beirut has reportedly threatened to cut any American or international assistance for ministries allocated to Hezbollah. Although Washington does not provide direct aid to the Health Ministry, it is a major player in the World Bank and other organizations that do just that.
Hezbollah – after all – is going to have the Health Ministry, and most of the sovereign ministries through its allies, the Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement. Now that the intra-Christian complication is solved, Hezbollah seems to be more adamant than ever in appointing a Sunni ally in the next government.
THE DEVIL IS NOT IN THE DETAILS
In any case, whether this pro-Hezbollah Sunni minister is allocated to Hariri’s share, or that of the president, the bottom line is beyond these details. Hezbollah wants a majority government with a national unity title. As Iran’s arm in Lebanon, they prefer not to alarm the international community right before the sanctions of November 4 start. They need Hariri to stay as the Prime Minister, with a government that is marketed as a national unity one, while in reality, they control all decisions.
With their allies in the Economy, Finance, and Justice Ministries, Hezbollah will have the necessary portfolios to manage the sanctions that will target their institutions and the state institutions. They can also use the Justice Ministry to avoid the upcoming verdict of the Special Tribunal of Lebanon, which is investigating the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
The prosecution submitted in September its closing arguments, with two important disclosures. One, there is ample evidence to corroborate the link between Hezbollah’s leadership and the perpetrators of the killing, including details on their movements and communications ahead of the attack. Two, the Syrian regime was also at the core of the plot.
Although the final verdict is not expected for another five to six months, the revelations in the prosecutor’s closing arguments should not be taken lightly. If found guilty by the tribunal for killing a prime minister, Hezbollah will be regarded as a criminal organization by countries worldwide. This includes European governments, which will find it more difficult to deal with Hezbollah’s “political wing” if an international court officially determines that its parent organization carried out the assassination. Likewise, international relations with Lebanon’s state institutions will become highly problematic if Hezbollah remains part of the government.
Despite these warnings, it doesn’t seem that Hezbollah – or Hariri himself – are aware of the consequences of forming a government that is so tied to Hezbollah and its allies. In Washington, Hezbollah’s allies are no longer regarded as groups that could be approached to distance themselves from the party or Iran. This ship has sailed and they are seen as Hezbollah’s enablers. This will also have consequences on their parties and the ministries they will be heading and managing.
Lebanon is wrestling with the world's third largest public debt-to-GDP ratio, stagnant growth and what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said are increasing vulnerabilities within its financial system. A new government that is tied to Hezbollah is not going to attract investments or financial assistance that would alleviate the economic crisis that is looming over Lebanon.
Add to that the other crisis that is approaching Lebanon and its very vulnerable security; that is a potential conflict with Israel. It seems Iran/Hezbollah’s priority at this point is to continue converting their missiles from regular missiles to precise weapons. Since it is no longer safe to continue doing this conversion in Syria (Israel is bombing them constantly), they are starting to move them to Lebanon, thinking that Israel will think twice before moving its operations against Iran/Hezbollah to Lebanon.
That is certainly true, as Israel prefers not to start a war in Lebanon with Hezbollah at this point – for many reasons. However, these facilities are also Israel’s main red-line. And at one point, when Hezbollah starts producing in masses, or when they get closer to the converting the missiles, Israel will not sit back and watch Hezbollah develop precise weapons that will target Israel.
With the economy crisis and a potential conflict with Israel, what Lebanon today needs is a government that distances itself from Hezbollah as much as possible, to avoid both sanctions and a conflict that would destroy Lebanon.
However, because Hezbollah is more aware of these upcoming challenges than anyone in Lebanon, they need to protect themselves. And it seems the best way to protect themselves is to hide within the government and state institutions. Hezbollah needs the state of Lebanon, and its institutions will be used to cover Hezbollah’s financial and military challenges.
Hezbollah knows how to play the long game and knows when to use or block the state institutions. Since their creation in 1982, the party and its leadership have used and abused the state to their advantage. The question is: why is Hariri and other Lebanese politicians playing their game? Does a seat in a government which will only function a cover for Hezbollah worth it?
Many Lebanese think that being part of the government is better than being outside as this will provide an opportunity to save Lebanon from the abyss. That has worked in the past, but this time the probability is very low. It is Iran’s first government in Lebanon, and being in the inside will eventually feel like being an accomplice rather than a savior.