Ever since Najib Mikati took over as Prime Minister of Lebanon earlier this year, things have gone relatively smoothly. With no opposition in the cabinet, there have been few opportunities for conflict (with the exception of the odd squabble between Michel Aoun and his disgruntled allies).
All that could change next week. The cabinet must finally take up the ticking time bomb that they’ve been avoiding for months (and which was the downfall of Saad Hariri’s government), namely the issue of funding the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
For obvious reasons, Hizbullah is opposed to funding the court, as is AMAL. And Michel Aoun, per his usual custom, has played the role of the intransigent rejectionist to the hilt, going so far as to declare: “Even if Hizbullah approves the funding, we’ll vote against it.”
The problem is that it’s not in Hizbullah’s interests, at this stage, to create an international incident over the STL, and this is what may well happen if Lebanon reneges on its obligation to the court. The Americans and Europeans have made it abundantly clear over the past several weeks that there would be dire consequences if Lebanon severs its ties to the STL.
What this means is still unclear. However, when one combines Lebanon’s recent stance at the Arab League on the Syrian uprising with the prospect of ending its cooperation with the Tribunal, it seems straightforward to assume that Hizbullah’s opponents (in Lebanon and abroad) will seize the opportunity to argue that the Mikati government is nothing more than an extension of the Syrian regime, and should be treated as such by the international community.
Hizbullah would prefer to avoid such a scenario, as they understand that their position on Syria has not done them many favors in Lebanon or the rest of the region. The problem is, even if they wanted to find a solution that would keep the hounds at bay while allowing them to save face by voting against the funding, it’s not clear how they would do so.
As far as I have been able to ascertain from my conversations in Beirut this week, approving the funding requires a simple majority vote in the thirty-member cabinet. At present, Hizbullah and its allies hold eighteen seats, while the remaining twelve are divided between ministers loyal to Mikati, President Sleiman, and Walid Jumblatt. In other words, there is no way to compose the necessary majority to approve the funding without using ministers from the shares of Hizbullah, Amal, or the FPM.
So we’re faced with a situation whereby either one of those three parties has to reverse its policy on the funding, or they all hold a firm line and Lebanon drops the STL like a bad habit. Neither scenario is ideal, from the current majority’s perspective.
One possible solution that has been floated is that the cabinet passes the hot potato to the Parliament, where a majority in favor of the funding can be assembled by having Walid Jumblatt vote with his old allies. I’m not sure this is a constitutionally legitimate move, but I’ve been told that it could be the basis for a typically Lebanese fudge.
Whatever happens, we’re sure to see Saad Hariri make a serious push next week at the Tripoli gathering to put as much pressure as possible on Najib Mikati to resign. My sense is that Hizbullah would prefer to keep this government afloat and out of the Syrian cross-fire, but not at the expense of voting for the tribunal themselves. If the parliamentary solution doesn’t work and the cabinet can’t muster the votes, Mikati will probably walk and Hizbullah will let him do so.
In that scenario, we’ll be back to treading water with no government, and things will be… interesting, yet again.
[An earlier version of this post stated that a two-thirds super-majority was required to approve the funding. I’m now being told that a simple majority will do, as there are no new international treaties being signed.]