Hezbollah vs Mikati: The Inside Battle Over STL Mandate

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The relationship between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Hezbollah faces a new test at the beginning of March when the protocol establishing the STL comes up for renewal. (Photo: Bilal Jawish)

By: Wafiq Qanso

Published Sunday, January 15, 2012

As UN head Ban Ki Moon lobbies for extending the STL mandate, Hezbollah and Lebanon’s PM Najib Mikati are at loggerheads over the renewal. But neither side apparently wants a confrontation that could bring down the government.

Following the crisis last year over funding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the fraught relationship between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Hezbollah faces a new test at the beginning of March when the protocol establishing the STL comes up for renewal.

Three years after its formation, the STL’s mandate will need to be extended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “in consultation” with the Lebanese government and the UN Security Council.

This presents Hezbollah with a serious dilemma after it swallowed the bitter pill of Mikati’s approval of STL funding, saw its demand for Lebanese judges to be withdrawn from the tribunal ignored, and felt compelled to stop pressing for action on the “false witnesses” issue.

In light of these reversals, insiders say Hezbollah cannot afford to back down on the issue of renewing the STL protocol too. “Its credibility is on the line, in its own eyes and those of its supporters,” explains one knowledgeable observer.

There are conflicting interpretations of the precise meaning of the term “consultation” in the agreement between the Lebanese government and the UN which founded the STL. Some maintain that the Lebanese government’s take on extending the STL’s mandate is binding for the UN.

Others hold that Lebanon can only be consulted on the matter, but cannot make the final decision on it. Hezbollah shares the latter view, and is not inclined to be accommodating, even if that causes a “major problem” within the government, sources say.

The most Hezbollah might accept is the “do not commit” formula concocted by Mikati, which had been employed skilfully on other issues. This would mean, in effect, that the government would not take a position on the subject of extending the STL’s mandate and would offer no opinion if asked by the UN secretary-general.

This would, outwardly, seem like a convenient way for Mikati to avoid a government crisis. But Hezbollah is worried that the premier may be lured into making public commitments on the matter – as he did when the issue of STL funding arose. That severely embarrassed his political allies, forcing them to choose between quitting the government or accepting his decision to finance the tribunal.

Mikati later argued that he had no choice, on the grounds that he could neither defy “Sunni opinion” nor renege on Lebanon’s international obligations.

There is much resentment within Hezbollah about the way Mikati has treated the party and its allies since his government was formed. Hezbollah feels it has bent over backwards to accommodate him, to the extent of alienating some of its own allies and upsetting others.

The party appreciated Mikati’s need to burnish his “Sunni” credentials, but, in the words of one source, he has often “behaved as though he is more ‘Futurist’ than the Future Movement.” This is somewhat excessive however, the source admitted, given Mikati’s own role in removing the movement’s leader Saad Hariri from his post as prime minister.

Yet when all is said and done, Hezbollah knows that it is immeasurably better off with Mikati in office than it would have been if Saad Hariri had remained prime minister. It takes no great leap of the imagination to envisage how things would look if that had happened, given events in Syria and the way regional and world powers are lining up against Damascus.

But it is Mikati’s actions concerning the STL that most riles Hezbollah. He did not make any categorical commitments before becoming prime minister regarding the STL’s funding, withdrawal of the Lebanese judges, or renewing the protocol. But he did give the impression that he would accommodate his coalition partners in relation to these issues.

Hariri himself had agreed – before negotiations on the Saudi-Syrian deal collapsed – to block the STL and withdraw the judges. It was only natural to expect that Mikati would not seek to outdo Hariri.

Since then, Hezbollah has been dealt successive slaps in the face by Mikati over the STL issue specifically. He completely disregarded the false witnesses issue, which could have been the undoing of senior security and judicial figures who continue to behave as though nothing has changed since Mikati’s government took over. He declined to withdraw the Lebanese judges from the tribunal. He also provided the STL with new funding.

These are necessary evils perhaps. But Hezbollah insiders maintain that things will not be allowed to go too far.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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