Following a few years of a ceasefire between Lebanese PM-designate Saad Hariri and Hezbollah, the tension between the two political leadership is rising. It appears to be about the last hurdle in the way of government formation; however, the problem is probably more complicated. If Hariri can no longer help Hezbollah with evading US sanctions, his attempts to form the government will be blocked until he does. Hariri cannot protect Hezbollah from sanctions, and Hezbollah is feeling the pressure. How will this develop? There are a number of scenarios on the horizon.
AN UNSPOKEN DEAL
When Hariri submitted his resignation in Saudi Arabia in November of 2017, Hezbollah lead a fierce campaign against the kingdom, while its allies President Michel Aoun and Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil started a diplomatic campaign addressed to the Europeans – particularly the French - and the Americans to help get Hariri to step back from his resignation and return to Lebanon. These two parallel campaigns seem to have succeeded and returned Hariri as Prime Minister.
However part of Hariri felt grateful to his political opponents, especially Bassil, who took advantage of the opportunity to strike a deal with Hariri pre-parliamentary elections. Both leaders decided to help each other during the elections. For each, it seemed like a win-win situation. Bassil could use Hariri’s constituency to gain the votes he needed to finally secure a seat at the parliament, thereby increasing the presence – and influence – of his party, the Free Patriotic Movement. As for Hariri, he thought that allying with Bassil would be a strategic move to protect himself and also try to drive a wedge between the FPM and Hezbollah, a hypothesis that has proved to be failure too many times.
Bassil got what he wanted, but Hariri didn’t. He lost one third of his bloc in the parliament and failed to create that wedge between his newfound ally and Hezbollah. Still, Hariri hoped that the approach might eventually work and his deal with Bassil would not benefit Hezbollah. But it did. Hezbollah – as usual – took advantage of Hariri’s conciliatory attitude and helped bring him back as a PM-designate to form the government.
BEYOND THE GOVERNMENT FORMATION
Seven months later and the government is yet to be formed. After many hurdles and too many compromises, a government was on the verge of formation in October, when Hezbollah suddenly decided that the new pro-Hezbollah MPs constitute a parliamentarian bloc and deserve their own minister. Adding insult to injury, Hezbollah demanded Hariri cough up one of the ministries assigned to his bloc in order satisfy the new demand. And that’s where the real deadlock was created. Hariri refused to accede to the new demand, and Hezbollah refused to relinquish it.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump signed HIFPA 2, a bill freighted with amendments targeting more Hezbollah assets. Around the same time, the US imposed severe sanctions against Iran that also affected Hezbollah’s financial assets.
Hezbollah understands that HIFPA 2 is likely just the beginning of many additional sanctions coming their way. And so the party needs to protect themselves with a government that can insulate them from HIFPA’s ramifications.
Hezbollah also needs the government to allow access to its resources – such as government jobs and services – to make up for their own diminishing pool of available jobs and services, now being eroded by the sanctions on Iran.
Hariri has already made many compromises in order to form the government. But if he continues to give in, it will likely be the end of the line for him. His constituency isn’t happy, and he needs to prove himself a capable prime minister before the regional and international community, one that can afford Lebanon at least a certain measure of protection.
Along all these complications, Lebanon is witnessing the rising tension between Hezbollah and Israel. In recent months, Hezbollah has transferred facilities designed to upgrade regular rockets into precision missiles from Syria to Lebanon. In doing so, it has drawn a menacing Israeli gaze. Threats of airstrikes once focused solely on Syria are now directed at Lebanon. Hariri must take this too into consideration. During the next war, if Lebanon’s government appears too friendly with Hezbollah, Lebanon as a state will also be attacked.
For all these factors, Hariri can’t give in.
It is now evident that Hariri won’t allow a pro-Hezbollah Sunni bloc to have a stake in government. When it realized as much, Hezbollah decided to launch a smear campaign aiming to force Hariri to reconsider. The campaign started with Hezbollah’s allies and media figures, accusing Hariri and his father of representing the 'American and Zionist Agenda' in the region. They also began blaming him for the deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon, sending their supporters to the streets to cut roads and rail against a stagnant economy.
For many, this means that the “honeymoon” with Hariri is over and that this might also impact Hariri’s deal with Bassil. On the last hurdle, Bassil seems to have taken Hezbollah’s side rather than Hariri’s. He won’t even accept Hariri’s proposal to give Hezbollah’s Sunni candidate a ministry from his government.
This also means that Hezbollah desperately needs the government to be formed, and they can’t give Hariri more time to negotiate. But most and foremost, this means that Hezbollah – and thereby Iran – are terrified of the repercussions of sanctions, and that they would do whatever it takes to secure their power and position in Lebanon.
The next steps depend on Hariri’s reaction. If he gives in, this whole smear campaign will probably fade away, and Hezbollah will emerge stronger. But if Hariri refuses to give in, there are two options for Hezbollah: either wait, keep the pressure and accept more delay in the government's formation, or opt for a more drastic solution and replace Hariri with another “friendlier” PM.
If Hariri gives in, he will look even weaker – internationally and to his own Sunni constituency. Moreover, Hezbollah will look like the defender of the Sunnis who stand by him, setting an example to anyone who is considering joining the Hezbollah train. And if he leaves, he will probably gain back most of his disillusioned constituency but will lose the prime ministry. It is in a way a lose-lose situation.
In any case, both scenarios will make Lebanon look more and more under Hezbollah and Iran’s control, which will eventually expose Lebanon’s institutions and assets to all sorts of international pressures and sanctions, in addition to more serious Israeli threats or attacks.