A “Clean Bill of Health” for Hezbollah in Lebanon
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | January 30 - February 6, 2019
Nine months after the parliamentary elections in Lebanon, and following a prolonged political crisis and bargaining ordeal, the caretaker prime minister, Saad Hariri, announced the formation of a new unity government comprising, as always, 30 ministers.
The main winner emerging from this political bargaining is Hezbollah, which has proven once again that it is not only the strongest military organization in the country, but also one of the dominant political forces.
Hezbollah twisted Hariri's arm on the main point of division that stalled the formation of the government – the organization's demand that a group of six pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs will be represented by a minister in the cabinet, at the expense of Hariri's bloc.
Furthermore, Hezbollah obtained three ministerial posts (compared to two in the outgoing government), including Minister of Public Health, Dr. Jamil Jabak. A former personal physician of Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah, Jabak is associated with Hezbollah, but not a formal member. Had he been a Hezbollah member, Jabak's appointment would have exposed his ministry to international sanctions. Notably, this will be the first time that Hezbollah controls a major executive ministry with the fourth-largest budget at its disposal. To date, Hezbollah held relatively junior and minor ministerial positions.
Hezbollah is expected to try and exploit the Ministry of Public Health to strengthen its welfare network (the Dawa). For instance, Hezbollah could oversee the expansion of clinics and health services in the Shiite-dominant southern Lebanon to strengthen its grip there and beyond. However, Hezbollah might also be exposed to public criticism due to the difficult condition of Lebanon's public health system that is on the verge of collapse.
Following the announcement of Jabak's appointment, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to the Lebanese government to prevent the redirection of funds to strengthen Hezbollah. In response, Nasrallah spoke on Hezbollah's-affiliated TV station going out of his way to avow that he does not control the government and that the budget of the Ministry of Public Health is transparent and audited.
From an Israeli perspective, the formation of the government demonstrated that destroying Hezbollah's cross-border terror tunnels – the loss of a vital military asset – did not politically harm Hezbollah and it is destined to expand its power in the Lebanese arena. The balance of power among the main camps in Lebanon reflects the growing influence of Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Hezbollah will not face any real pressure to disarm. Moreover, the Lebanese government might take a more adversarial approach regrading border disputes with Israel on the land and at sea (the demarcation of maritime borders adjacent to gas fields in the Mediterranean).
The formation of the new government was followed with festivities and fireworks in Beirut exposing the public hope that the government will address one of the most severe economic crises in the history of the beleaguered country. Lebanon has one of the largest public depts in the world (150 percent of GDP), staggering unemployment levels (35 percent of the workforce), a mounting electricity crisis, and widespread corruption. In January, Moody's downgraded Lebanon's credit rating to Caa1 that reflects heightened risks to the country's financial stability and the possibility of a government default.
Under these circumstances, the government's first order of business is to realize the international aid commitments to Lebanon (USD 11b) that were withheld due to the domestic political crisis. To access these funds, the government will have to reach a political consensus on a series of economic and structural reforms required by the IMF and the World Bank.
The new government beholds an achievement for women representation with four female ministers (compared to one in the outgoing government). Of the four, Raya Al Hassan became the first female interior minister in the Arab world. Dr. May Chidiac, an anti-Syrian Christian-Maronite journalist, who lost her left arm and leg in an assassination attempt in 2005, was appointed Minister of State for Administrative Affairs representing the "Lebanese Forces" party, led by Samir Geagea.
In sum, the new government reveals the growing power gap between the two main political camps in Lebanon – the weakened March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri and his allies, the "Lebanese Forces" (with 10 ministers), and the emboldened March 8 Alliance led by President Aoun and his allies, Hezbollah and Amal Movement (with 16 ministers). Notwithstanding, both camps hold veto power and can block crucial government decisions.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental
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