Lebanon’s $3 Billion Price Tag
Published Monday, December 30, 2013
In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and France’s Francois Hollande – who also met Saad Hariri in Riyadh – agreed on a “royal grant” worth $3 billion paid directly to France, in return for French weapons and hardware to be delivered to the Lebanese army. But one condition for this grant is forming a cabinet in Lebanon, from which Hezbollah would be excluded.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman took it upon himself to announce the grant and to begin implementing Saudi’s conditions. A few weeks ago, Suleiman informed Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and MP Walid Jumblatt, as well as Hezbollah, of his intention to form a “neutral government” without consulting anyone over the names of the ministers, based on a 14-minister lineup that Premier-designate Tammam Salam would submit to the president later. Suleiman even set a date for the stunt: after he returns from his New Year’s Eve holiday in Budapest, before 7 January 2014.
The March 8 forces, together with MP Jumblatt, tried to dissuade Suleiman and Salam from their plan, but the president would not budge, implying that there was no going back. This was the case even before the assassination of former Minister Mohammed Shatah, and things did not change after.
While some expected Suleiman to reconsider his decision following last Friday’s assassination, March 14 doubled down, rushing to demand to return to power without partnership with Hezbollah.
This should be seen as a follow-up to what happened after the assassination of Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, and the Saudi message carried by then-Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdul-Latif al-Zayani to Suleiman: Hezbollah has to choose between continuing to fight in Syria or being part of the government. Shortly after that, the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati collapsed.
Following Shatah’s assassination, March 14’s demands went on to explicitly require isolating Hezbollah from power, and boycotting any dialogue with the Resistance Party. Commenting on the Saudi grant, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, said quite clearly, “Political power is the basis, and it is our demand without which nothing, not even financial grants, would do us any good.”
Similarly, Future Movement officials and other March 14 figures said they wanted a government without Hezbollah. Leading sources in this political camp told Al-Akhbar, “We have notified President Suleiman that any negotiations regarding a partnership government involving the other side is out of question. We asked him to do what he sees fit because the ball is in his court.”
But Jumblatt opposes such a move. According to sources close to the Druze leader, he conveyed to both Suleiman and Salam a clear position: “This step resembles the decisions made on May 5 under the government of Fouad Siniora in 2008, which led to the May 7 incidents. Today, the country needs a national unity government to defuse strife in the street.” Accordingly, Jumblatt has told Speaker Berri that he would not give a vote of confidence to any government that the speaker and Hezbollah do not endorse.
For their part, March 8 forces have kept quiet about what they plan to do in response to what they call a “de facto government under the guise of neutrality.” Some extremists in this camp warned that such a government would be barred from ruling, even if that meant storming the Grand Serail – the seat of the Lebanese government.
They said, “What stopped us in 2006 from storming the Serail where Siniora was present was a phone conversation between Ali Larijani and Bandar bin Sultan, who mediated among Lebanese political rivals and drew red lines for the protests. Today, the lines of communication are broken, and no one will prevent us from defending our rights.”
The sources continued, “Bandar’s plan at the moment is to form a de facto government to draw Hezbollah into the street, under the illusion that this would force Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria to meet challenges in Lebanon. What they don’t know is that Hezbollah has prepared to face all security contingencies on more than one front, to defend the Resistance.”
The rest of the March 8 forces refuse to disclose details about their response to a de facto government. Instead, prominent March 8 sources only shared with Al-Akhbar what they said was “a characterization of reality as it stands.” In their view, “the decision to form a de facto government is part of the war Saudi Arabia is waging in the region, from Syria and Iraq, to Lebanon and Bahrain.”
The March 8 sources added, “Bandar bin Sultan is still betting on a change on the Syrian battlefield, moving toward Moscow, which has snubbed him, and moving in Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon to improve his position in Syria. What Saudi wants is to form a de facto government before Geneva II, for a marginal goal, namely, to have the Lebanese delegation at the conference be part of the delegations putting pressure on the official Syrian delegation. At home in Lebanon, forming a government like this means adding another nail to the coffin of the Taif Accord, the first nail having been the March 14 exclusive administration under Siniora’s first cabinet.”
The sources then said, “If Saad Hariri’s government was unable to rule, and Mikati’s government could barely issue routine decisions, how can Suleiman, Salam, and March 14 expect a government opposed by more than half of the Lebanese people to rule? How do they expect to get a vote of confidence?”
The sources raised more questions: “Can this government implement the decisions it makes? Do they not know that a government that has no vote of confidence is not entitled to take over the jurisdictions of the president in the event of a vacuum in his post?”
The sources concluded: “Where are they taking the country to? So far, our camp is still committed to peaceful confrontation. But they have given us only two examples: the assault on Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani at the Khashogji Mosque, and the slogan ‘Viva the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’”
The slogan in question was uttered by President Suleiman, in the speech he made after a press conference scheduled earlier by the Baabda Palace was canceled. At almost the same time, clashes were taking place at Beirut’s Khashogji Mosque, amid fears of further deterioration of the situation, suggesting to some that Suleiman could have been in the process of putting forward a salvation initiative.
Instead, the president’s allies were taken off guard by Suleiman’s declaration, especially since he had spoken to some figures during Shatah’s funeral service that he was planning to “declare an initiative that could change the face of Lebanon.” But rather than doing that, Suleiman focused all his speech on announcing the Saudi grant, which was restricted to procuring French equipment for the Lebanese army, even as the majority of the latter’s hardware has been US-made since President Amin Gemayel’s tenure.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.