BEIRUT // Lebanon needs a unity government that includes a role for the Islamic resistance movement Hizbollah to effectively ward off Israeli aggression, according to the incoming prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri. "I want to assure the Israeli enemy that Hizbollah will be in the government, whether the enemy likes it or not, because the interests of the country require that we all take part in this government," he told supporters gathered for a Ramadan dinner at his Beirut home on Tuesday.
The new Israeli administration led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that should Hizbollah participate in the unity government Mr Hariri has been attempting to form since June, it would consider all Lebanese government infrastructure to be legitimate military targets. Hizbollah and Israel have been engaged in an increasingly heated public relations battle that some fear could be a precursor to another round of violent conflict.
"If Hizbollah joins the government, it will be clear that the Lebanese government will be held responsible for any attack coming from its territory against Israel," Mr Netanyahu said last month. Mr Hariri quickly reached an agreement with Hizbollah and its Shiite allies on the composition of his cabinet after the opposition demanded veto-power over major government decisions, widely seen as a tactic to prevent the militants from being ordered to disarm by the government in Beirut.
But after agreeing to a formula that allocates 15 seats to the majority, 10 to the opposition and five seats to President Michel Sleiman's supporters, talks immediately bogged down as a key ally, the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, withdrew from the majority alliance. But after a meeting late on Tuesday night, Mr Jumblatt continued to throw his support behind the majority alliance, despite his newfound neutrality.
In remarks published yesterday by the local newspaper As-Safir, Mr Jumblatt said the designated prime minister had "made every effort in order to make progress on cabinet formation". "Hariri and I want a government that would act as a safety valve to face the challenges," Mr Jumblatt said. He also seconded Mr Hariri's opinion that a national unity government is critical "in order to confront the possibility of an Israeli attack at any moment".
But Mr Hariri also faces broad problems from Lebanon's influential Christian community as they angle for additional power and control of critical ministries. He has had little success in wrangling either with his own allies or the Christian parties supporting the Hizbollah-led opposition. Mr Hariri said that each political party is "entitled to take its own stances and submit its proposals, yet the formation process is constitutionally associated to the prime minister-designate in co-operation with the president".
"I see a need for dialogue since matters that bring us together are far more than what divides us," Mr Hariri said at the Tuesday dinner. The premier-designate insisted that he is keen on forming a national unity government to "strengthen the country and carry out the promises we made to the Lebanese citizens during the June 7 parliamentary elections". But Mr Hariri will have to face trouble from within his own camp, as well as from the followers of former general Michel Aoun, a critical opposition figure, who is demanding control of key ministries over the objections of the majority.
Although that battle has yet to resolve itself, Mr Hariri's allies in the Kata'eb Party, a right-wing Christian movement yesterday also announced they would suspend, but not quit, their participation in the majority alliance, nicknamed "March 14". Leaders of the Kata'eb have criticised Mr Hariri's willingness to work with Mr Aoun in any way and several of its members have been particularly aggressive in stymieing progress on the new cabinet, according to one of their nominal allies.
One Christian political figure, who asked not to be named, described many of the problems as personal, as political figures harass rivals from other parties and refuse to compromise on allocation of the ministries, as well as fermenting complaints that March 14's financial backing is not transparent. Several Kata'eb loyalists appear to be demanding answers on how the alliance is funded. The MP Akram Shohayib, a majority supporter aligned with Mr Jumblatt, said that the internal battles in March 14 are too dangerous to discuss in public. "If I told you what happens during the meeting of the general secretariat of March 14, the country will go to chaos," he said, before refusing further comment.