Lebanese parties that had earlier strongly rejected paying the government’s share of funding to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon need to justify their acceptance of seeing Prime Minister Najib Mikati pay the sum, after months of controversy over the matter. The group that needs most to justify the fall-back in rejecting the funding is Hizbullah, which is the sponsor and backbone of the government.
The justification, which comes from a backdrop where these groups maintain their rejection of the “American-Israeli” STL, according to Hezbollah who acts as if it does not exist, will loom large on the domestic political scene in the coming days. There will also be a debate over who won and who lost in the process.
It was not the first time, or indeed the last, that Hezbollah has retreated on a political issue, refusing to acknowledge that it had miscalculated when it staked out a position at the beginning, rejecting the notion of funding and being unable to step back from its stance. But in the end, it was forced to do so, and has hurt its image in the process.
If the party were concerned about the importance of the repercussions of its stances, retreats and compromises on its political position in Lebanon, it would not have put itself in the first place in a corner over the funding issue, by taking a stance of absolute rejection. This rejection has consequences for its relations with a wide segment of the public, as Hizbullah ignores that the fact that many people consider the STL and the revealing of the truth in the 2005 Rafiq Hariri assassination a priority. Otherwise, Hizbullah would not have been the chief participant, along with the Syrian leadership, in sabotaging the Saudi-Syrian negotiations a year ago, which had arrived at a settlement that would have covered the issue of the STL, and led to a comprehensive political reconciliation in Lebanon. Also, it would not have rejected the results of the Turkish-Qatari initiative, which followed the derailing of negotiations between Syria and Saudi Arabia. If the initiative had succeeded, the challenge of funding the STL would have been taken up by Saad Hariri as prime minister, in the face of the international community, and he would have been forced to convince his many supporters. Instead, Prime Minister Mikati faced a test of his “commitment to international resolutions” and Hariri supporters, whom he cannot anger any further. The settlement would have led to a situation of “moving forward and forgetting about the past,” even if the STL continued to function.
However, Hezbollah rejected the initiative, because it would have entailed ending the presence of Palestinian weapons outside the camps, and controlling them inside the camps, along with allowing the security bodies of the Lebanese state into the camps, to prevent the use of arms in political disputes.
Thus, Hezbollah’s rivals believe the party got ahead of itself, by refusing to acknowledge the error of its insistence on rejecting STL funding, and then accepting it. Earlier, it brought down the so-called S-S (Syria-Saudi Arabia) political deal, and before this, it occupied Beirut in 2008. Its leadership sees such acts as instances of realism and superiority, and self-confidence. But observers consider this a lack of concern with political losses. This is because Hezbollah is confident about its surplus of force, as it forms part of a system that Hezbollah itself has considered a "superpower" in the region, able to change regional and international political formulas, such that it can absorb the consequences of any set-back here or there, such as funding the STL.
The regional agenda is what concerns Hezbollah. Because this item takes priority, it is easy for Hezbollah to step away from the error of rejecting STL funding and mobilizing its base and the public against it. The price for the survival of the current government, whose resignation would strip the party of the legal cover for its attempt to retain influence on the ground, and inside Lebanese state institutions, especially security-related ones. Such a policy allows Hezbollah to further solidify its positions, in the ongoing regional confrontation, which is experiencing an escalation, especially with Iran. Hezbollah’s rivals see the latest move as a retreat, in its acceptance of the funding, but it is natural for the party's supporters to see the wisdom of its long-term objectives, and a price to be paid for something that is more important, namely the survival of the government. It would be difficult to find an alternative to this cabinet in which Hezbollah’s rivals would not take part, after having ousted these rivals from power around a year ago, and behaving as if they do not exist.
However, this time, the compromise, or retreat, by Hezbollah involves emerging regional conditions that coincide with an escalation in the Syrian crisis. No matter how this crisis ends, it will affect Hezbollah in Lebanon, and settle the issue of Syria's role in the party's "surplus of force." The survival of the current government, in this sense, prevents a rapid deterioration in this surplus, and thus Hezbollah hopes that its own regional function remains effective, amid the waves of turbulence that are lashing the region.
Here, backtracking on rejecting funding for the STL becomes a simple matter. The party is taking precautions for what is more dangerous.
The writer is a columnist at Dar Al Hayat, where this article was first published on Dec 2, 2011.