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Lebanon’s Vanishing Prime Minister Is Back at Work. Now What?

Now Mr. Hariri is at home once again — and everyone is trying to figure out what comes next.

“Where do we go from here?” said Nadim Munla, senior adviser to Mr. Hariri. “Everybody is monitoring Iran and Hezbollah, and I really believe that the ball is in their court.”


Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, right, meeting Mr. Hariri in Riyadh in October. Although Mr. Hariri has denied it, other Lebanese politicians and foreign diplomats say that Saudi Arabia forced him to announce his resignation earlier this month. Credit Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Government, vis Associated Press

Mr. Hariri’s strange trip underlines how vulnerable Lebanon remains to clashing regional and international agendas. In the country’s sect-based political system, most major parties rely on foreign powers for funding, with the expectation that the parties will then advance the interests of their international backers.

Mr. Hariri has played that role for Saudi Arabia since taking it over from his father, Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who was killed in a car-bomb attack in Beirut in 2005. Countries like the United States and France also support him, considering him a moderate, pro-Western leader.

Hezbollah plays that role for Iran, which helped create it in the 1980s. Iran now relies on the militant group as a strategic threat against Israel and as an expeditionary military force in the Arab world, including in Syria.

Besides their divergent views on Lebanon’s role in the world, there is bad blood between Mr. Hariri and Hezbollah.

Mr. Hariri has criticized Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, and some of its members have been indicted for involvement in his father’s killing. Hezbollah says it played no role.

But a deal last year brought them together in a power-sharing government, with Mr. Hariri as prime minister and a Christian ally of Hezbollah, Michel Aoun, as president.

That arrangement worked domestically. But as Saudi Arabia and its young, assertive crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, grew more alarmed about the activities of Iran and its allies in the region, they found it increasingly untenable that their Lebanese ally was heading a government with members of a group they consider a terrorist organization and security threat.


A Hezbollah fighter placed the Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at the Lebanese-Syrian border in July. Mr. Hariri has criticized Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Their pique came to a head on Nov. 4, when Mr. Hariri was summoned to Riyadh and forced to resign, according to foreign diplomats and politicians close to him. Hours later, Saudi officials said they had shot down a missile fired from Yemen as it neared the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Saudi officials blamed Hezbollah for helping Yemeni rebels, and Thamer Sabhan, the Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, accused Iran and Hezbollah of “an act of war” against Saudi Arabia.

It remains unclear what the Saudis expected to happen next, but they had at least entertained the idea of replacing Mr. Hariri with his older brother, Bahaa, believing that he would take a harder line on Iran, according to foreign diplomats and Lebanese politicians.

“It was part of saying that Hariri is not ready to do this, so let’s find someone who can,” said Alain Aoun, a member of Parliament from the president’s party.

But the plan backfired, with politicians across the political spectrum and other members of Mr. Hariri’s family rejecting the idea that Saudi Arabia could swap out politicians as it pleased.

“We are not herds of sheep, nor a plot of land whose ownership can be moved from one person to another,” Nouhad Machnouk, the interior minister and an ally of Mr. Hariri, told reporters this month.

“In Lebanon, things happen though elections, not pledges of allegiances,” he said, in a jab at Saudi Arabia’s monarchical system.

Western countries like the United States and France have worked to keep Lebanon stable, in part because it has taken in more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, giving it the highest refugee count per capita of any country in the world.


The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised address in Beirut in June. The breadth of Hezbollah’s activities abroad has lead many to conclude that addressing them is not Lebanon’s responsibility alone. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The Saudis had not informed their Western allies of their plans for Mr. Hariri, and officials in Paris and Washington were horrified when he announced his resignation.

When Mr. Sabhan, the Saudi minister, arrived in Washington a few days later, officials at the State Department berated him for pushing a rash act they felt could destabilize Lebanon, American officials said.

France intervened as well. President Emmanuel Macron invited Mr. Hariri to Paris and repeatedly called the Saudis to press them to let him leave.

After stops in France, Egypt and Cyprus, Mr. Hariri landed in Beirut on Tuesday to a hero’s welcome. The next day, during a celebration of Lebanon’s Independence Day, he announced that he was holding off on his resignation to allow for dialogue with other political leaders.

Any dialogue will have to address Hezbollah’s activities abroad, an issue that Lebanese politicians have avoided because they know they have little leverage over a military force much more powerful than the national army.

Mr. Aoun, the member of Parliament, said that Mr. Hariri had returned stronger than before, thanks to an outpouring of support from Lebanon and its foreign allies.

“He is coming back with a great opportunity,” Mr. Aoun said. “No one sees him as responsible for what happened. They see him as a victim of what happened.”


A poster in Beirut bearing a portrait of Mr. Hariri with the Arabic words reading, “We are all with you.” Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

He said that he expected the dialogue to focus on the idea that Lebanon should stay out of conflicts in the region. Hezbollah has flouted that by sending fighters and advisers to Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

But the breadth of Hezbollah’s activities has lead many to conclude that addressing them is not Lebanon’s responsibility alone.

“It is not through a Lebanese dialogue that we can address these issues,” Mr. Aoun said. “They need to be discussed internationally.”

And the parties’ foreign backers may not give them much room to negotiate.

In an interview published on Friday, Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia compared Iran’s supreme leader to Hitler and said that Mr. Hariri could not provide political cover for a government that the Saudis consider to be controlled by Hezbollah.

The day before, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, stood up for Hezbollah, saying that it should have the best weapons to protect Lebanon.

“This issue is nonnegotiable,” he said.

Mr. Munla, Mr. Hariri’s adviser, said the coming negotiations would need to address Hezbollah’s regional role, but that it was unclear whether it or its Iranian patrons would be willing to give that up.

“Given what we are hearing from them, one would wonder if they are willing to compromise,” he said.

Source: NYT > World

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