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The mysterious politics of Lebanon and its impact on Israel

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The last time I interviewed Saad Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon, his hand was covered in bandages. It was 2006 and his friend, and political ally, Pierre Gemayel, had just been assassinated. Gemayel, from one of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian families, was an outspoken critic of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah. Hariri had been so angry, he’d punched a wall.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 16, 2017

Fast-forward to a fortnight ago when Hariri spectacularly resigned on Saudi television. Was he worried about facing the same fate? At face value it would seem so, as the Lebanese politician stated he feared for his life.

He launched a vicious tirade against Iran and Hezbollah for interfering in the affairs of other Arab countries. But nothing should be taken at face value in the Middle East and questions are being asked whether Hariri genuinely suspected he was on Hezbollah’s hit list - or if his Saudi patrons forced him into a corner?

Assassinations are nothing new to Lebanon, a small country with numerous minority communities: Sunnites, Shiites, Alawites, Ismailis, Christians and Druze. For most of its modern history, it has been highly unstable.

Gemayel was the fifth anti-Syrian figure killed in the space of two years, and Hariri’s father, then Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated back in 2005. More than 20 people died alongside him in a car bomb attack in Beirut. This assassination resulted in mass protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was believed to have been behind it.

Damascus eventually withdrew its troops from Lebanon and although an international tribunal indicted five members of Hezbollah, it has consistently denied responsibility and insists the charges are political.

When I visited Lebanon a few months after the Hariri (senior) assassination, a memorial casket adorned with flowers stood in a tent outside. People were lining up to pay their respects to the much-loved leader. Even today, posters of Rafik Hariri hang everywhere in the capital city.

Lebanon is a deeply divided country. Saudi Arabia has long backed the Sunnis living there and the multi-billion-dollar Hariri business empire. Saad Hariri cannot do a thing without Saudi support and they were the ones who insisted he become Lebanon’s prime minister late last year. The United States supports from afar.

Squaring off against them is Hezbollah, backed by Iran, and now the most dominant force in Lebanese politics. The president, Michel Aoun, is a Christian ally of Hezbollah.

But Lebanon is just one of several proxy wars Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently embroiled in across the Middle East. The two countries are at loggerheads in Yemen where a Saudi-led multinational coalition supports the president against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. More than 5 000 people have been killed there in the past two years.

In Syria, Riyadh supports the rebels fighting against the Iranian- and Hezbollah-supported President Assad. And now, as that war winds down, Hezbollah fighters are returning home to Lebanon and their leadership is refocusing on internal Lebanese battles.

With Hariri’s resignation, the country again finds itself dangerously at the mercy of Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry. Riyadh has described Tehran as the head of the snake spreading poison throughout the Middle East.

These are sentiments Israel would agree with. While at face value the latest developments might seem good for Jerusalem, there are growing voices cautioning the country against being pulled into a war prematurely.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, warned last week that Saudi Arabia is inciting Israel to strike Lebanon after what he called a Saudi declaration of war in lieu of the Hariri resignation. Nasrallah says he is watching carefully for any Israeli attempts to use the crisis to begin hostilities against Hezbollah

Israelis don’t take much heed of what Nasrallah says, but voices inside Israel are also cautioning against Jerusalem being used as a pawn by the Saudis.

To be sure, Israel and Saudi Arabia are on the same page against Iran. Jerusalem is hugely worried about Iranian weapons passing into Hezbollah’s hands. They are also concerned about recent satellite images that show, according to some experts, an Iranian military base being established some 50 kilometres from the Israeli border.

But why would the Saudis force Hariri to resign – if indeed this is what has happened? Why would they do this if he is their man in Lebanon and their intention is to confront Tehran on every front?

At the time of writing there is talk of them replacing Saad with his older brother, but it's all merely speculation. The Saudis have also hinted at a military operation and called for their nationals to leave Lebanon.

No doubt Riyadh is trying to force Hezbollah and its Iranian backers into a corner. A year-and-a-half ago, the Saudi kingdom imposed economic sanctions on Lebanon, froze $3 billion in aid for the Lebanese armed forces and halted bilateral business deals.

Could the Saudis be hoping these economic pressures will squeeze Hezbollah and damage Iranian interests at the same time? And if yes, once Hezbollah finds itself stuck with the blame and responsibility for the mess in Lebanon, are the Saudis hoping Nasrallah will seek a war with Israel as a way of distracting the Lebanese population from problems at home?

In recent years, Jerusalem and Riyadh have been growing closer, albeit in secret. The alliance makes sense; they both view a nuclear Iran with equal dread and have a common ally in Washington.

Reports of a secret visit by the Saudi Crown Prince to Israel in September this year, fuelled speculation that official diplomatic ties, which until now don’t exist, could be on the cards. Such an alliance with the leader of the Sunni Arab world, will be hugely significant and helpful for Jerusalem.

But what won't be helpful, is if Israel is drawn into a war not of her own making. Most Israelis believe another showdown between Israel and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, is only a matter of time, but it will be a costly war and very different to the last one fought a decade ago.

To be clear, Iran is as much a threat to the Israelis as she is to the Saudis and Jerusalem won’t pull back from confronting any Iranian threats on her borders or elsewhere. But such a war should be determined on Jerusalem’s clock and not Riyadh’s.

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

 

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