Analysis |

With Patients’ Lives at Stake, Lebanon’s Government Caved to Hezbollah

To ensure the supply of dialysis equipment, the prime minister convinced Hezbollah to undermine its alliance with a partner that has been boycotting cabinet meetings. The price may well be appointing one of the organization’s supporters as president

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
פותחת
Lebanese government meeting this week.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Beirut’s Al Makassed General Hospital issued an urgent notice to patients in need of dialysis on Sunday. “Tomorrow, Monday, no dialysis will be performed because of the lack of necessary equipment,” it said. “We ask patients not to eat vegetables, aside from cabbage and cucumbers, not to drink a lot of water, to avoid salt and eat dairy products that aren’t salty.”

The missing equipment consisted of thousands of tubes that connect the machine to the patient’s body. Without them, dialysis can’t be performed. The tubes aren’t expensive, but since the hospital already owes more than $1.25 million to the company that supplies them and can’t provide government guarantees that the debt will be covered, the company decided it couldn’t continue supplying them.

In the end, arrangements were made for their purchase and the tubes landed at the airport. But they spent another two days there before customs released them. Meanwhile, the hospital tried to find spots for its most urgent cases at other hospitals, but their supply of equipment was also swiftly being depleted.

Cancer patients are in no better condition. Treatment at private hospitals, which comprise most of Lebanon’s medical centers, is horrifyingly expensive, and they too are starting to suffer from dangerous shortages of products used in chemotherapy. Some patients have been asked to buy the needed products themselves; others were told not even to bother coming to the hospital. These hospitals have been waiting months for the government to allocate dollars and also repay its debts to them, which are estimated in the millions of dollars.

Health workers attend to suspected cholera patients inside a field hospital in Bebnine, Akkar district, northern Lebanon in October.Credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/Reuters

But approving government funding for medical treatments is a very complicated issue in Lebanon. It requires the cabinet to convene for a special budget debate on whether to release necessary funds for life-saving treatments. The country is still being run by a caretaker government, since the current prime minister, Najib Mikati, has been unsuccessful in forming a new government since May's election.

In October, President Michel Aoun’s term ended, and no replacement has yet been appointed. The president must be chosen by a two-thirds majority of parliament, and so far, parliament has voted nine times without achieving the necessary majority. Another vote has been scheduled for next week, but there’s no guarantee the outcome will be any different.

The reason for this is a serious political dispute between the Free Patriotic Movement – the second-largest Christian party in parliament, which is headed by Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil – and several other parties, including the other Christian parties, the Shi’ite party Amal and the Sunni parties. This rivalry is dictating the rules of the political game and has led some parties to skip parliamentary sessions and boycott meetings of the cabinet, which hasn’t convened in more than six months.

Bassil, who seeks to succeed his father-in-law as president, said in an interview with Reuters last month that he has so far refrained from putting forth his candidacy to give parliament a chance to choose a compromise candidate who would be acceptable to most parties. But if no such candidate is found, or if he deems the proposed candidate unsuitable, he would put forth his own candidacy, he said.

Yet even he appears to understand that his chances of being elected are slim. He is a powerful politician, but also one of Lebanon’s most controversial ones.

Gebran Bassil, a prominent Lebanese legislator who heads the main Christian group allied with Hezbollah, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press, in Beirut, Lebanon, in October.Credit: Hussein Malla/AP

His relationship with the largest Sunni party, the Al-Mustaqbal ticket headed by Saad Hariri, is bitterly hostile. The Druze don’t support him. He has even managed to quarrel with the leader of the Shi’ite Amal party. Finally, the U.S. administration opposed sanctions on him two years ago because it suspected him of helping Hezbollah; that alone is enough to deny him the presidency.

Nevertheless, he hasn’t given up. If he can’t get elected president, then he’ll make every effort to ensure that the president is at least someone he can manipulate at will.

Until recently, he could rely on an alliance with Hezbollah, and especially its leader Hassan Nasrallah, who was Aoun’s staunchest political partner. This alliance gave Bassil huge leverage that enabled him to prevent the cabinet from convening for months, thereby grabbing Lebanon and its political elites by the throat until they agreed to his terms.

He could do this because to convene a legal cabinet session capable of making and implementing decisions, at least 16 of the 24 ministers must show up. So if ministers from both the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, along with two or three members of other parties, refuse to attend, a meeting can’t take place.

Mikati has been left powerless, with no ability to hold vital discussions about budget allocations, reforming the electric company or even meeting the hospitals’ needs. All his efforts to persuade Bassil were in vain.

Nasrallah delivers a speech via video, April.Credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS

But this week, something happened. Mikati decided to convene the cabinet to discuss the critical situation of dialysis and cancer patients. He explained that this is a question of life or death and managed to convince Hezbollah’s ministers, as well as two other of the nine boycotters, to attend the meeting.

“The penal code includes crimes of omission,” Mikati said, explaining the meeting’s importance. “Had we acquiesced to those who demanded that we not hold the meeting, we would have committed the crime of negligent homicide. This won’t happen. We’ve reached a situation where we can’t fund treatments for cancer patients and people who need dialysis. Is there anyone who wants us to commit a crime against them?”

According to the constitution, a caretaker government can’t make major decisions. But it has a bit of maneuvering room to enable it to make decisions that are considered critical. Saving the lives of cancer and dialysis patients provided a justification for convening the meeting, which was not only a successful show of strength by Mikati, but also a resounding slap in Bassil’s face.

Bassil, furious and frustrated, didn’t let his ally’s “betrayal” pass in silence. At a press conference the next day, he launched poisoned arrows – not at the caretaker prime minister, but at the partners who “betrayed him.”

Protesters throw bottles glasses at the Lebanese Central Bank building, background, where the anti-government demonstrators rally against the Lebanese Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, Lebanon, in October.Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

“When a partnership is broken, it is lamed,” he said. “If anyone thinks he can pressure us on the question of the presidency, he’s wrong. We’ll display even greater determination.” Then he added, referring to Hezbollah, “my problem isn’t with the prime minister, but with the people controlling him.”

Has the traditional alliance between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement come to an end? Analysts familiar with Hezbollah were quick to say that this wasn’t a rift, but merely a dispute. Yet it seems as if Nasrallah and his partner Nabih Berri, who is the leader of Amal and the speaker of parliament, have gotten fed up with Bassil’s tricks and decided to show him who really sets the rules of the game.

To avoid completely fraying its ties with Bassil, Hezbollah’s public relations office said that “we were summoned attend the meeting, and our condition was that the discussion be confined to vital issues that can’t be postponed and can’t be solved without a cabinet decision. After we examined the items on the agenda and confirmed that there was no other way, we decided to attend the meeting.” It said it even offered that if Bassil attended the meeting as well, it would support any objection he raised to any agenda item in order to achieve unanimous support.

But this explanation didn’t convince Bassil. He said the cabinet meeting wouldn’t have taken place at all without a prior agreement between Hezbollah and Mikati. In other words, his political partner stuck a knife in his back.

Experience shows that whenever Hezbollah puts on a show of being a “responsible adult” concerned with the public’s welfare, it attaches a price tag to it. This time, the price is likely to involve the choice of the next president, and above all preventing the election of Michel Moawad, a bitter opponent of Hezbollah who was nominated by one of the other Christian parties, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces.

Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces at his home in the Christian village of Maarab in the mountains overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh, October 31, 2014Credit: Mohamed Azakir/ REUTERS

Hezbollah is backing Sleiman Frangieh. But if it can’t overcome the objections of Bassil’s and Geagea’s parties, it would also be willing to support the army’s chief of staff, Joseph Aoun (who is no relation to outgoing President Michel Aoun).

With great political skill, Hezbollah has not merely mustered local support for its candidates. By not preventing the signing of an agreement on Lebanon’s maritime border with Israel and even terming it a “historic achievement” for Lebanon, by giving a green light this week for the cabinet to convene and approve funding for cancer and dialysis treatments, and by using that occasion to also approve changes in the wages and pensions of army personnel, Hezbollah has racked up brownie points.

It hopes that these will suffice to win France’s support for the candidacy of either Frangieh or Aoun. It also hopes Washington will give a green light, even though both men are close to the organization.

Support from both countries is essential to free Lebanon of the political mess that is preventing it from extricating itself from its economic crisis, because that will enable it to obtain billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund and the aid promised by donor states four years ago. Without them, patients may be able to continue receiving necessary medications and treatments, but ordinary Lebanese will continue living in darkness.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure

מליאת הכנסת 28.12.22

Comeback Kid: How Netanyahu Took Back Power After 18 Months in Exile