BICOM Analysis: Crisis in Lebanon and implications for Israel


Key points

  • The prosecutor in the UN backed tribunal into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has now submitted draft indictments. With Hezbollah officials believed to be among the accused, what is at stake for Hezbollah is not its power, but its legitimacy.
  • Proof that Hezbollah was involved with the murder of Hariri would tarnish its reputation in the Arab world, by causing Hezbollah to be seen as an alien, Shia, Iran-sponsored force, rather than an authentic Lebanese and Arab group.
  • In response to this threat, Hezbollah is doing all it can to undermine the tribunal, including withdrawing from the Lebanese government, bringing about its collapse.
  • The movement is trying to identify Israel as the party responsible for the killing. Despite this claim, Israeli strategists believe that an attempt by Hezbollah to heat up the border with Israel is currently unlikely.
  • Israeli strategists have long viewed Hezbollah as the dominant factor in Lebanon. Whatever the outcome of the tribunal, the de facto military domination of Lebanon by Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, is unlikely to be affected.

Introduction: what is at stake in the current crisis?

On Monday (17/1), the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, submitted draft indictments for individuals accused of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Relatively senior Hezbollah figures are expected to be accused of the murder. The indictments will now be examined by pre-trial judge, Daniel Fransen.  This process may continue for another six to ten weeks, at which point Fransen will decide if enough evidence exists for a trial. 

The impending issuing of indictments led the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc to remove its ministers from the Lebanese government last week. This is the latest chapter in an ongoing political crisis which has gripped Lebanon since the ending of Syrian occupation of the country in 2005. March 8 is the Hezbollah led political bloc in Lebanon, backed by Iran and Syria. It is opposed by the March 14 coalition, a pro-western, Sunni led bloc headed by Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, the son of Rafik.

The resignations of ten ministers from the March 8 bloc (and an additional ‘independent’ Shia minister) came after it became clear to Hezbollah that Sa’ad Hariri was not going to meet their demand to withdraw his support from the tribunal. Hezbollah has been trying in recent months to secure an announcement from Hariri condemning the tribunal. This would constitute, as the Lebanese journalist Michael Young puts it, a ‘certificate of innocence’ for the movement. The Hezbollah walkout from the government followed the evident failure of Saudi-Syrian attempts to mediate a compromise solution. 

It is important to understand that the current crisis in Lebanon is taking place not because Hezbollah fears a threat to its power from the tribunal. The movement is by far the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon today. No mechanism exists for the arrest of movement members, and the movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to ‘cut off the hands’ of anyone who tries.

What is at stake for Hezbollah is not its power but its legitimacy. The movement faces difficulties because its status as a Shia organisation supported by Iran, in the largely Sunni Arab world, makes it vulnerable to claims that it is a foreign implant, which does not legitimately represent Lebanese interests. The movement consistently attempts to portray itself as a legitimate resistance force defending Lebanon against Israel and acting to liberate the Palestinians. Should the movement find its members accused of the murder of Hariri – a popular, mainstream Sunni Arab politician – this would severely tarnish its image.  

What happens now in Lebanon?

President Michel Suleiman is now set to hold consultations with parliament in order to form a new government. There are two possibilities. If the pro-Western March 14 bloc can maintain a parliamentary majority, Hariri may be tasked with forming a new, narrower government. Whether this majority will be maintained now depends on the 11 seats controlled by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt was initially associated with March 14, but has been repairing his relations with Syria and Hezbollah over the last two years.

Were Jumblatt to back the Hezbollah led opposition, Hezbollah and its allies could theoretically set about organising a government. However, there are clear problems that make this outcome unlikely. The Lebanese constitution requires the prime minister of the country to be a Sunni. There is no Sunni leader in the country today of comparable stature to Sa’ad Hariri. While Hezbollah does have a number of Sunni, pro-Syrian politicians in its camp, the placing of such a figure in the position of prime minister would be perceived among Sunnis in Lebanon and internationally as a transparent and cynical exercise, lacking legitimacy.

A third possibility is that the caretaker government of Hariri will limp on for months, unable to take major initiatives and possibly facing a growing campaign of civil disobedience led by Hezbollah. Such a scenario would resemble the situation in Lebanon between November 2006 and May 2008.


What is the view from Israel?

Israel has no direct interest or involvement in political events in Lebanon. Jerusalem’s only direct interest is in a quiet border and in stability. The level of deterrence achieved in the 2006 war has largely maintained quiet on the border since that time. At the same time, Hezbollah has been energetically re-arming. The movement is now thought to possess an arsenal of over 40,000 rockets facing Israel. 

Israeli commentators reacted to the resignation of the March 8 ministers without surprise. Noting the strength of Hezbollah’s armed forces, Israeli strategists had low expectations for the potential of the March 14 project to curb Hezbollah’s strength. Officials dealing with Lebanon consider this scepticism to have been largely justified. The default assumption in Israel is that Hezbollah and its Iranian backers have, and will retain, freedom of manoeuvre in military terms.

The most important question for Israel, therefore, is whether Hezbollah might provoke a border incident with Israel, in order to shift attention away from the Hariri Tribunal onto its supposed ‘resistance’ to Israel. The general opinion of the Israeli defence establishment appears to be that while this remains possible, it is at the moment unlikely. 

Hezbollah has undoubtedly been trying to ‘change the subject’ of the tribunal to that of Israel in recent months. But it has been doing this by seeking to portray the tribunal itself as an ‘Israeli project’, and claiming to possess evidence that Israel itself was responsible for the murder of Hariri. Movement leader Hassan Nasrallah repeated the claim of Israeli involvement in a speech on Sunday (16/1), in which he also blamed Israel and the US for the failure of Saudi-Syrian efforts to reach a compromise over the tribunal.  

When it comes to a direct confrontation with Israel, however, the movement is likely to tread very carefully. Such a confrontation would be likely to exact a heavy toll from all the communities in Lebanon, for which Hezbollah would be held responsible. A provocation on the border at this time would be seen within Lebanon as a transparent attempt to divert attention away from the tribunal.


Hezbollah is now unassailable in military power terms in Lebanon. The Hariri tribunal does not have any power to change that. The central concern for Hezbollah, and its backers in Iran, is the threat to the movement’s legitimacy in Lebanon and the wider Arab world. Indications that the movement murdered Rafik Hariri would boost claims that the movement represents Iranian, and not Lebanese or Arab interests. Hence Hezbollah is desperately trying to stifle the tribunal, even though there is little danger that its members will actually be arrested. 

From Israel’s point of view, there is currently only a low level of concern that the crisis might spill over into a clash between Hezbollah and Israel. Such a clash would exact a high price on both sides and would not serve Hezbollah’s goals at the present time. Nevertheless, the military threat posed by Hezbollah, and the growing influence of Iran in the region, is unlikely to be curbed by the current crisis. This sets to remain one of the central security challenges facing Israel.