x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Nasrallah says Lebanon must sever ties with Hariri tribunal

In the first comments by the Hizbollah leader since his party toppled the government he told a TV audience that Lebanese judges, funding and obligations to the tribunal must be removed.

BEIRUT // Lebanon must sever all its ties to the UN-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of the country's prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said yesterday.

In his first public comments since his party toppled the government of the former leader's son, Saad Hariri, last week, Mr Nasrallah told a TV audience that Lebanese judges, funding and obligations to the tribunal must be removed.

"For me this does not mean the cancellation or elimination of the international tribunal," he said in a softer, more measured tone than his usual speeches. "Because when you withdraw the Lebanese judges, the UN will get judges of other nationalities and when you stop the Lebanese funding, the UN will get funding from other places."

Mr Nasrallah's position, and by extension the position of the opposition coalition his party dominates, is crucial to how and whether Lebanon will emerge from its current political paralysis.

Cabinet members belonging to the Hizbollah-dominated opposition resigned from the cabinet last Wednesday, causing the collapse of the government and plunging Lebanon into its worst political crisis since May 2008, when street clashes erupted between fighters loyal to Lebanon's rival political factions.

Saad Hariri, returning on Friday from a week of visits to the United States, France and Turkey, described the government collapse as "an unprecedented act in the history of governments in Lebanon."

At the heart of the crisis is the contentious and unresolved issue of the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon charged with naming the killers of Rafiq Hariri.

Since rumours surfaced months ago that the tribunal would indict members of Hizbollah for the killing, the Shiite group and its opposition allies have been eager to discredit the process, which they say is a US-Israeli ploy. Mr Hariri's government was adamant that the tribunal, which has yet to announce its indictments, continue unobstructed.

Mr Nasrallah said: "Some leaders from Hariri's party were saying that the tribunal verdict, which is expected to accuse people from Hizbollah is not right. But it's not really that hard to understand that most of what is being said about this verdict is actually correct."

The Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, a consensus figure on the fractured political stage, will begin the process of forming a new government and nominating and electing the next prime minister when he consult Lebanon's 128-seat parliament today.

He is likely to meet with division among the deputies. Mr Hariri's alliance has already said it will support only Mr Hariri's reappointment as prime minister. The Hizbollah-led opposition is making the rejection of the tribunal a prerequisite of a return of Mr Hariri to the post.

Since Mr Hariri will almost certainly reject that demand, another candidate will be nominated by the opposition. As Lebanon's executive appointments must happen by consensus - it took the government five months to have Mr Hariri appointed as prime minister after the June 2009 elections - it could be some time before Lebanon is anywhere near having a government again.

Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said: "The formation of the new government will be very difficult to reach. Now there's all these issues at stake. I think there's going to be very tough negotiations ahead and I'm not sure we'll form a new government soon."

In the meantime, Ms Atrache and other analysts say, civil conflict is unlikely. Hizbollah's aim in the current impasse is to discredit the tribunal. Initiating violence internally would not bolster its cause and would cause it to lose favour with moderate Arab sympathisers and Lebanese voters, whom it won over during its 34-day conflict with Israel in 2006. What is far more likely are mass demonstrations.

Michel Aoun, a powerful Christian leader and ally of Hizbollah, said on Saturday that the opposition alliance is discussing taking to the streets in peaceful protest.

"There will not be strife," he said. "What is going on represents a confrontation between people who support what is right and people who support what is wrong."

Until shortly before the government collapse last week, Saudi Arabia and Syria, which each back opposing sides of Lebanon's political divide, were working on a solution to the impasse that would be workable for all.

The Saudi-Syrian initiative was declared a failure on Tuesday and other foreign powers have been vying since then to enter the vacuum. France has proposed the creation of an international "contact group" to negotiate a settlement. Turkey, a regional broker, is proposing international talks involving countries who back both of Lebanon's rival political camps.

Meanwhile Daniel Bellemare, the lead prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, is handing the tribunal's indictments to the pre-trial judge, Daniel Fansen, today. Once Mr Fransen is satisfied by the integrity of the indictments and evidence, the identity of those accused will be made public. Barring any major issue with the quality of the indictments, this process will take up to two months, tribunal officials say.