Technically speaking, the ninth month of vacuum doesn’t end before next week, but the number of events that happened in these last twenty days is too damn high, so I decided to link them to one another as soon as possible.
Behold, the glorious ninth month of presidential vacancy.
On the 28th of January, Hezbollah finally found the opportunity they have been searching for. Israel had launched a week earlier an airstrike in the Syrian Golan, killing an Iranian General and several commanders from the party, including the son of Imad Mughniyah, who was also killed by Israel in 2008 and was never avenged by the party. Whether the Israelis intended it or not, the strike was actually a very nice propaganda boost for Hezbollah. As I said in a post at the time, it would eventually help Hezbollah in their struggle to put the Syrian opposition and Israel in the same box. And I was right (Yay): A couple days after things calmed down on the southern border, Nasrallah made sure to point out how the Israelis and Jabhat Al-Nusra are both working together to “sabotage the resistance”. Hezbollah could have used the Israeli strike alone to strengthen this discourse, but not responding at the Israeli attack would have been a blow to the morale of the party. On the 28th of January, Hezbollah retaliated to the Israeli strike in the most calculated way possible: The attack happened from the Syrian Golan (where Israel had attacked the earlier), on a contested Lebanese-Israeli-Syrian territory (so not even Israeli), and the casualties were also relatively limited: 2 Israeli soldiers were killed while the Israeli strike killed an Iranian General and several Hezbollah commanders. For Hezbollah, the number was high enough to prove that they weren’t afraid of the consequences and that they wouldn’t let Israel target their men without retaliating anymore. But the number was also kind of low for Israel to respond: They were heading to elections in 40 days: The Israeli ruling coalition would have risked ending a failed military operation (like in 2006) right before the elections, and besides, the number was relatively low when it was compared to Hezbollah’s casualties a week earlier. By choosing the worst context for the Israelis to start a war (by launching the attack on disputed territory, by not kidnapping any IDF soldier, and by choosing the worst timing ever for Israel) Hezbollah wanted to send a message, not start a war. They gambled, and they won. Israel did not attack, and Hezbollah subsequently gained the upper hand – militarily in Syria, and politically in Beirut. (If you’re asking yourself how they won politically in Lebanon, look at how Jumblatt lauded Hezbollah’s ambush)
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part I)
If you follow Lebanese politics for several years, you’ll find that the Lebanese political parties are very predictable. In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s retaliation – and once it was sure that Israel wouldn’t strike back – the logical response from M14 would have been to constantly, frequently, relentlessly criticize Hezbollah’s “attempt at destabilizing the south, risking the destruction of Beirut’s infrastructure yet again, and dragging Lebanon into a proxy war between Iran and Israel while drowning the country deeper into the Syrian conflict”. Of course, if the Israelis had launched an offensive, M14 would have waited for the offensive to end to start criticizing Hezbollah, since it would make them look as if they’re standing with Israel if they’re too harsh on Hezbollah while the battles are raging. Anyway, what I want to say here is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah had the opportunity to start a political war because of Hezbollah’s military move in Israel, but neither of them took it, although Geagea tried to tun them against one another: He was giving a press conference the day the attack happened, and criticized the party’s move. Future Movement’s response was a clear indicator that they wanted peace with Hezbollah: Of course, Siniora criticized the party for his actions (you have to please your electorate after all), but that’s not what matters: Hariri was relatively indifferent about the issue (He didn’t even tweet about the events that week) and Future Movement’s minister in the cabinet said that Hezbollah did not break the ministerial declaration (yeah, it’s in bold because it’s important). That’s actually huge: Not only does it give Hezbollah an approval from the other side of the political spectrum, it also gives the impression that Hezbollah was acting within the legal limits established by the government. The cabinet’s ministerial declaration is very vague about the resistance (remember when the cabinet spent a whole month trying to write it?) and says that “Lebanese citizens have the right to resist the occupation”. This weird sentence was a compromise between M14 and M8 that was supposed to be midway between M8’s “The people, army, resistance equation” and M14’s desire to remove the previous sentence.
Anyway, the Future Movement made a wise decision here: By stating that Hezbollah’s move was actually within the boundaries established by the weird sentence in the ministerial declaration (Yes, I won’t stop calling weird, because it’s an absolute bullshit sentence that means nothing and could mean anything at all. Even “اكل الولد التفاحة ” would have been a better choice than ” الحق للمواطنين اللبنانيين في مقاومة الاحتلال الإسرائيلي ورد اعتداءاته واسترجاع الأراضي المحتلة”), Future Movement plays it smart and shows that the cabinet – that could be seen as an M14 one – is actually in control of Hezbollah’s actions with Israel (Actually it’s everything but that: The proof? The cabinet didn’t even meet the day the attacks happened). Anyway, Future Movement chose not to clash politically with Hezbollah – despite the LF and the Kataeb’s obvious desire to do so – and played it smooth: After all, they were having a dialogue, and there’s a vacant president seat out there that can’t be apparently filled unless both parties give the green light.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part II)
A couple of days after the attack, there was yet another opportunity to start an all-out between M8 and M14. After Geagea’s failed attempt the day of the ambush, came a leaked video about Strida Geagea that was circulated by the M8 media (specifically the Christian M8 media). It shows the LF MP saying “Nchallah ya Rab” when Journalist Denise Rahme informed her about what happened in the South between Hezbollah and Israel. As it turns out, the video was genuine but cut off and MP Geagea was saying “Nchallah ya Rab ma yisseer shi”. Anyway, this was an attempt – this time by the FPM – to start an all-out war between M8 and M14. Just like the LF and the Kataeb, the FPM were desperately trying to break the Hezbollah-FM dialogue. I said it once, I said twice, and I’ll say it every time: The Christians parties fear an FM-Hezbollah agreement more than they fear one another. Because in the end, every time both parties jointly approved something, it passed, regardless of what the Christian parties thought of it. Hezbollah ignored the Aounists twice during the parliamentary extension sessions, and the Future Movement did the same with the LF when they decided in 2014 to go ahead and share the cabinet with Hezbollah while throwing their closest Christian ally alone in the opposition. If Hezbollah and the FM agree on the presidential matter, it would be the ultimate downfall for the Christian parties. It scares them so much that they actually tried to wreak the HA-FM dialogue, first by starting their own dialogue (and then trying to end it in order to end the M8-M14 dialogue as whole), and now by trying to start a political war between M8 and M14 that would eventually end the dialogue and any chance of finding a Hezbollah-FM consensual candidate.
And how did the members of the dialogue react to that attempt? Instead of arguing about Strida Geagea’s video, both parties simply ignored the Christian brouhaha and made their allies panic even more by removing all their political posters from the city of Beirut in order to “defuse tensions“.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part III)
So let’s sum things up:
1) Hezbollah – Future Movement dialogue starts => Dialogue “making progress” => Christian parties panic. (That was last month)
2) Hezbollah retaliates against Israel => LF wants the FM to criticize Hezbollah => Instead the FM indirectly endorses Hezbollah => Christian parties panic more => FPM tries to start an all-out war => the FM and Hezbollah respond by signing a “poster removal peace treaty” => Christian parties panic even more.
How much more exactly? The Christian parties would panic so much, that when FM MP Khaled Daher made his faux pas last week and said the anti-Christian comments, the Christian parties were so much paranoid that even the Kataeb – who practically never publicly criticize their allies – asked the FM to throw Daher out. In a way, they were also indirectly asking the FM to up the tone against Hezbollah – after all the only way for Mustaqbal to repair the damage done by Daher would have been by criticizing Hezbollah’s sectarian foundations.
Surprise: The FM threw Daher out, and did not accuse Hezbollah of anything. And to make things worse? According to reports, Hezbollah was advancing in the Syrian south and launching one of the most violent campaigns since their intervention in Syria started. And the FM didn’t say a word about it => Panique Chrétienne Généralisée (Excuse my french)
That was it for the M8/M14 Christian parties. Hezbollah and the FM were serious about the dialogue, and for a while, it seemed that the consensual president would be “forced” on them. It was the apocalypse.
Except it wasn’t.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them, Then Beat Them (Part IV)
After approximately three weeks of bonding with Hezbollah, Hariri threw this bomb on the 14th of February commemoration of the assassination of his father. In 3 weeks, Hariri (1) gave the impression that he had no problem with Hezbollah’s retaliation and made it look as if Hezbollah was following the cabinet’s guidelines that were jointly set by M8 and M14. Then, (2) Hariri managed, whether he meant it or not, to cause confrontations between the members of M8, and between the LF and the FPM. He also managed to (3) undermine Siniora, (4) to throw Daher out and eventually attract a friendly Christian electorate towards M14 while (5) setting boundaries for his MPs, (6) to give the impression that Hezbollah lost him as an ally after they thought they were winning him over, while (7) showing that he is a moderate at the same time because he wants to have a serious dialogue, and (8) highlighting the fact that he is actually making a big sacrifice by negotiating with Hezbollah, which would mean that he is (9) a patriot that values Lebanon above everything else.
These three weeks were supposed to be about Hezbollah’s achievement. Instead, they became all about Hariri, who didn’t even have an achievement.
Lebanese politicians, take notes. Because that’s one hell of a political maneuver.
Hezbollah were so embarrassed by Hariri that they needed to respond quickly in order to prevent him from taking advantage of what just happened: Not even 24 hours had passed after the Hariri speech when a Hezbollah drone flew over Israel (That’s the second one in three years). The drone wasn’t about Israel or Syria, It was a message destined to the FM: Hezbollah wanted to show that Hariri’s speeches, no matter how violent in their criticism, will have no impact whatsoever on Hezbollah’s military decisions. The proof? When Nasrallah gave his speech monday, he barely mentioned Hariri’s criticism. He only lauded Hariri’s anti-terror stance, using it to empower Hezbollah’s position, without even mentioning Hariri’s harsh criticism, as if the “insanity” part hadn’t happened in Hariri’s speech. That means two things: (1) Hezbollah wanted to undermine Hariri by ignoring him, and (2) they wanted to send a message to the Future Movement (by not escalating) that they were still ready to calm things down in order to ensure the success of the dialogue. After all, the road to Baabda goes through Beit Al Wasat and Hareit Hreik.
ِِAs the relation between the FM and Hezbollah is expected to quickly deteriorate now, don’t be too hopeful about breaking the deadlock soon. It seems that 9 months later, we’re back to square one.
Reminder: We still don’t have a president.
269 days since the 25th of May. 105 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.