Hezbollah keeps low profile in Lebanon flap
AFP, Monday 22 Oct 2012
Hezbollah, the most powerful faction in the cabinet, has made only one terse comment following the assassination of Lebanon's police intelligence chief Wissam Al-Hassan

Amid calls for the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati after the murder of a top security official blamed on Syria, Damascus ally Hezbollah is keeping its head down because it could be a big loser if he goes, analysts say.

Hezbollah is the most powerful faction in the cabinet, and its militia the most powerful military force in Lebanon.

It will do everything it can to keep Mikati in office in order to block pressure from at home and abroad for it to disarm and, as a member of government, to have the "cover of the state" if it ever goes to war again with Israel, they say.

Since police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan was killed in a Beirut car bombing on Friday, Hezbollah has made only one terse comment.

Without pointing the finger of blame, it said the bombing was "an attempt to destabilise Lebanon and national unity."

Since then, Hezbollah's own television station, Al-Manar, has limited itself to simply reporting unfolding events.

And on Monday, a source close to the Shiite Muslim party said merely: "We are following what is happening. We have nothing to say. May God protect Lebanon."

Analyst Amal Saad Ghorayeb told AFP: "Hezbollah is keeping a low profile, waiting for tensions to subside, and will not respond to accusations against it because it fears a change of government."

"It knows that if the opposition returns to power, or if there is a government of national unity, its position regarding its arsenal and regarding the UN-backed tribunal tasked with trying those charged with murdering Rafiq Hariri will be complicated."

Former premier Hariri was assassinated in a 2005 car bombing. Four members of Hezbollah have been charged with the crime, but they have never been arrested, and the party has said it will not cooperate in the case.

Another Hezbollah fear is that a new government in Lebanon "could offer official aid to Syrian rebels or put pressure on Damascus" in the 19-month uprising to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

"Syria has problems with political parties in Lebanon, but if the government were to change, it will have problems with the Lebanese state," said Ghorayeb, author of "Hezbollah: Politics and Religion."

Sociology professor Wadah Sharara said Hezbollah is keen to remain in government to give it the cover of the state if there is another war with Israel, or a conflict involving Iran.

"It is a heavyweight in the government and it wants to be able to ensure that if there is an attack by Israel, or a war between Israel and the United States against Iran, its close ally, it will be able to benefit from the support of the Lebanese state."

After Hezbollah sparked a war with Israel in 2006, it bore the brunt of Israel's wrath, not the army, and the party reproached then premier Fuad Siniora for not throwing the support of the state behind it.

In the end, Hezbollah "doesn't care about the gesticulations and declarations of the opposition, which mean nothing to it. What matters to it is that the current artificially constructed majority (in parliament), made up of many elements, holds together through the blackmail or threats it can make," Sharara said.

And for that, it is counting on mercurial Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who, while an outspoken critic of Assad, is afraid of finding Hezbollah in opposition.

On Monday, Jumblatt said "criticising the government and putting preconditions on its resignation will expose the country to destabilisation and force it into a new trap set by the Syrian government, which wants to create a political vacuum."

There are only three ways the government can fall. The premier can resign, more than one third of ministers can resign or any MP can demand a vote of confidence, which requires 50 percent of deputies plus one to pass.

In the end, Hezbollah does not believe the international community wants the Lebanese government to fall, or that it will.

And political science professor Ghassan al-Azzi says there is a good reason for its confidence.

He says Hariri is focusing his political fire on Mikati, rather than taking Hezbollah head on, because "if you take Hezbollah on directly, it means without a doubt that you are in favour of civil war."