Saad Hariri - AP
Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Photo by AP
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It would not be overly dramatic to argue that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri holds in his hands the keys to his country's stability, and to a large extent that of the entire Middle East, in the coming year. The son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005, and the man who led a very impressive popular protest movement that accelerated the expulsion of the Syrians from Lebanon (the "Cedar Revolution" ), has now reached a critical crossroads.

During the coming year, the younger Hariri will have to choose between insisting that the circumstances of his father's death be investigated - thereby endangering his own life and potentially pushing Lebanon toward a civil war that could end in a Hezbollah takeover - or, alternatively, submitting to the demands of the Shi'ite organization, which has already threatened his life, and publicly disassociating himself from the international tribunal examing the murder and its conclusions.

He has already been depicted as a tragic Middle Eastern figure, trapped between his conflicting roles as ibn al marhum (the son of the deceased ) and as za'im al dawla (leader of the country ).

Family fortune

Saad Hariri was born in 1970 in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, where his family was managing a number of economic projects that made it one of the wealthiest clans in the Middle East and in the world. After completing his bachelor's degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Hariri focused on business and the management of the family firm.

When Rafik Hariri was assassinated, on February 14, 2005, Saad was called back to Lebanon, where he chose to head the March 14 alliance (marking the one-month anniversary of the murder ) and the "march of the million" held on that date in Beirut to protest the continued Syrian presence in Lebanon.

After his camp's victory in the June 2005 elections, Saad Hariri preferred not to be appointed prime minister but rather to oversee the activity of Fouad Siniora in the position. But in the last elections, in June 2009, Hariri decided to lead the government following his victory. After prolonged negotiations, he established a cabinet that included members of Hezbollah, the very organization suspected of being behind his father's assassination.

Like his father, Saad Hariri is considered a protege of the Saudis. This week, however, Haaretz reported that Riyadh (in cooperation with Damascus ) has joined the effort to persuade him to disassociate himself from the international tribunal investigating the assassination. Thus far, Hariri has hesitated to issue an unambiguous statement on the matter. When the newspaper Al Diyar reported that he had decided to reject the tribunal's conclusions, he officially denied this.

But a compromise between the younger Hariri and Hezbollah, proposed jointly by the Syrians and the Saudis, demands that he disassociate himself explicitly from the court in The Hague, in return for Hezbollah's promise not to harm him. Apparently, if he rejects this proposal, Hariri will be depicted as having acted against the preservation of Lebanon's stability.

If, however, he accepts the proposal, it will disappoint an entire camp in Lebanon, which sees him both as a leader courageous enough to demand the pursuit of those responsible for his father's murder and as the prime minister who prevented the fall of Lebanon into Iranian and Syrian hands.

How to please Hezbollah

While the security detail around Hariri has been beefed up, if an organization like Hezbollah wants to make an attempt on his life, it will be able to do so. This is exactly what happened to his father, who, together with another 21 people, was killed when a car bomb exploded in the vicinity of his motorcade in Beirut. One of the suspects in the assassination was the individual who'd been in charge of Rafik Hariri's security arrangements and who became head of intelligence in Lebanon.

It is difficult to believe that Saad Hariri will enter into a direct confrontation with Hezbollah. Even though the group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, made a speech several days after the 2005 assassination, accusing those responsible for Rafik Hariri's death of betraying Lebanon, the current prime minister understands that even if Hezbollah were behind his father's murder he still won't be able to accuse it of treason. Saad Hariri is not the scion of a warrior family with a glorious past in combat, but rather a prince who inherited more than $4 billion.

It is impossible to overlook the family's importance and the key role Hariri's father played when he was alive. His mother has made it clear she wants to arrive at the truth behind her husband's assassination. Saad Hariri is likely to wait until indictments against Hezbollah activists are made public and then, after the status of the Shi'ite organization has been damaged, he will announce his wishes to preserve the unity of the country and renounce the demand to continue the investigation of his father's death.

But this may not satisfy Hezbollah. A violent coup in Lebanon and harm inflicted on members of the Hariri family both seem probable. Another option, of which Hariri is also aware, is that, in the event that the indictments are published, Hezbollah will likely try to divert public opinion from the case by dragging Lebanon into a military operation against Israel. Should that be the case, Israel has already made it clear that a Lebanese government whose members include Hezbollah people will become a legitimate target.