Hezbollah Quits Over UN Probe, Lebanon's Unity Gov't Collapses

11 ministers resign to preempt Hezbollah implication in Hariri assassination.

The Lebanese unity government fell apart yesterday after the entire bloc identified with Hezbollah, 11 ministers, announced their resignation.

Rafik Hariri and Nasrallah - Haaretz archive

The move is expected to ratchet up the political crisis in Lebanon ahead of the soon-to-be released results of an investigation by a United Nations-backed tribunal into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the father of the current prime minister, Saad Hariri.

Although the names and content of the indictments will apparently not initially be made public, the tribunal is widely expected to name members of Hezbollah in upcoming indictments, which many fear could re-ignite hostilities between Lebanon's rival Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims.

One of the expected indictments is against Mustafa Badr al-Din, brother-in-law of Imad Mugniyeh, the Hezbollah "chief of staff" who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Badr al-Din has recently been described as number two or three figure in Hezbollah.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah himself has said the tribunal is expected to point to involvement of central Hezbollah figures in the Hariri assassination.

The most recent crisis was sparked after Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon presented an ultimatum to the prime minister that its ministers would resign by 4 P.M. yesterday unless Hariri convened a special session of the cabinet to discuss Lebanon's objection to the international tribunal, and cease funding it.

Although the tribunal, based in the Hague, is independent, the Hariri government is funding 51 percent of its investigation. Hezbollah is demanding that the prime minister reject the tribunal's findings, but no agreement has so far been forthcoming on the matter.

Despite Hezbollah pressure, which included threats on Hariri's life, he has not given in. Apparently members of his family, including his mother, would like to see the recommendations released publicly.

The ministers submitted their resignation in the hope that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman would quickly take steps "to pave the way to a new government," said Gebran Bassil, a Christian minister, speaking on behalf of the Hezbollah ministers and their allies.

Hariri received news of the collapse of his government during a meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama. According to a Lebanese official in Washington with Hariri, after receiving the report, Hariri spoke by phone with officials in France, Qatar and other countries on means of resolving the crisis. The Lebanese official said Hariri would be meeting with Suleiman when he returns to Lebanon.

Hariri did not speak to the press after his meeting with Obama, and is to continue to France for a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy before returning to Beirut.

In a statement released after the meeting, the White House praised Hariri for his "steadfast leadership and efforts to reach peace, stability and consensus in Lebanon under difficult circumstances."

The White House also said that "efforts by the Hezbollah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government's ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people."

Hariri had been under severe pressure by Hezbollah even before the ultimatum to convene the cabinet but had decided to go to the United States, which the Shi'ite group saw as an act of scorn.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said yesterday that the United States would continue to render assistance to Lebanon in this time of uncertainty as a matter of American national interest, and that the United States condemned Hezbollah's transparent efforts to make the Lebanese government reject the special tribunal.

Crowley also said that although the United States had concerns about Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the entire organization should not stand accused, but only those responsible for Hariri's murder, and they should stand trial. Crowley said the United States believes that Hezbollah serves the interests of external forces trying to split Lebanon.

At the heart of the failed Saudi-Syrian compromise was the demand that Hariri announce even before the tribunal issued its verdict that Lebanon would cease funding to it and bring back home the Lebanese judges on the panel. In so doing, Hariri would undermine the panel's legitimacy in the eyes of the Lebanese public.

In exchange, Hezbollah was to have pledged not to harm him, to lower its profile in various areas (Hezbollah activists have recently entered Sunni quarters of Beirut ), to help Hariri get the 2011 budget passed and support the Lebanese Army against armed Palestinians outside of refugee camps.

It is unclear why the Syrian-Saudi mediation efforts failed. However, Hariri recently claimed that Hezbollah was not meeting the obligation it undertook.

The tribunal, headed by General Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, is to submit its conclusions to an investigative judge in the coming days, and apparently the content of the indictments and even the names of the figures involved would not be released publicly until the investigative judge completes his work, which is expected to take two and a half to three months. Still, sooner or later the content will probably be leaked to the media.

Even after the resignation of the Hezbollah bloc, Hariri is likely to continue in office, since he still has a majority in parliament, although day-to-day governance is likely to be difficult without Hezbollah support.

Another key question is the position of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Part of Hariri's camp after the 2009 elections, Jumblatt has more recently been cooperating with the Syrians and Hezbollah. If Jumblatt decides not to support Hariri, the latter would lose his parliamentary majority and his government would fall. At that point, the president would have to appoint another prime minister until new elections could be held.

The last time Hezbollah ministers resigned (from 2006 to 2008 ), Prime Minister Fouad Siniora continued in office.

Hezbollah has indicated that violence could result if Hariri does not reject the tribunal's indictments, although Hezbollah reportedly does not seek to take over Lebanon by force and prefers an agreement with Hariri's camp.

Yet another possibility, which Israel's security establishment believes is unlikely, is that Hezbollah might move militarily against Israel to escape criticism over the Rafik Hariri assassination.