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Analysis: The resignation that sent the Middle East into a tailspin

Leading Sunni political figure Saad Hariri was named as Lebanon's new prime minister
STRINGER (AFP/File)
Al-Hariri brought winds of optimism after a two-year government vacuum, but calamity was already apparent

The "bomb" dropped by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Saturday, in the form of his resignation, shocked everyone. But if one looks at the full picture, it is apparent that the seeds of calamity could already be found in the dramatic announcement that put Lebanon and the greater Middle East into a tailspin.

What remains a mystery is whether there was a specific trigger that caused Hariri to resign. Ronen Solomon, an Intelligence Times blogger, estimates that Al-Hariri was likely presented with an intelligence picture regarding the expansion of the Iranian power in Lebanon and a plot to assassinate him. According to Solomon, the fact that Lebanese security apparatuses announced that they had no information on a possible assassination plot could indicate that a foreign intelligence source had given the information to the Saudis, which led to the surprising move. It is likely that the trigger for Hariri’s dramatic resignation will be exposed at some point or another.

This story is worth beginning by looking back to October 2016, when a breakthrough occurred in the presidential crisis in Lebanon. Until the beginning of November 2016, Lebanon had been without a president after Michel Suleiman left the presidential palace in Baabda district in Beirut in May 2014. Thus, Lebanon remained for more than two without a president, breaking a negative record even on the global level. The presidential vacuum has become a symbol of the crisis in Lebanon and a rift between various ethnic groups and camps that were not able to agree on a president for more than two years.

ANWAR AMRO (AFP/File)

One of the crises that symbolized the helplessness of the Lebanese government is the crisis of garbage piles in Beirut in August 2015, which brought the masses into the streets and became a protest against Lebanese lawmakers.

The presidential vacuum finally ended with a resounding political victory for Hezbollah. Nasrallah supported his ally, General Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement at the time, and those who had signed political partnership with him prior to the Second Lebanon War. Sa'd Al-Hariri, who led the March 14 camp, Hezbollah, thought of other candidates, such as the chairman of the Lebanese forces, Samir Geagea, and the leader of the faction, Suleiman Franjieh, but Nasrallah did not give in. Ja'ja was considered a particularly hated figure for Hezbollah because of his hawkish positions against him, while Franjieh identified with the axis of resistance even more than Ma'on, but Nasrallah did not give up.

Finally, in the name of preference for the public interest and in an attempt to get Lebanon out of the political and economic arena, Al-Hariri decided to agree on the candidacy of Michel Aoun, and in return he accepted the position of prime minister, a role that was no stranger to him at all. Al-Hariri, chairman of the Al-Mustaqbal faction, which represents most of the Sunnis in Lebanon, succeeded in winning parliamentary elections with quite a number of seats in 2009, enabling him to become prime minister that year.

Only two years later, Al-Hariri, who also holds Saudi citizenship and is considered a close associate of the Saudi royal family, was forced to dissolve the government. At the time, it was Hezbollah ministers who decided to resign following the trial held by the International Court of Justice in The Hague to assassinate Al-Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

AP Photo/John Moore

On November 1, 2016, the Lebanese parliament convened and after a series of votes succeeded in finally choosing a president. Michel Aoun decided to train the government as expected on Saad Al-Hariri, and spirits of optimism were captured in the land of the cedars for the future to come within the so-called "New Age."

Hezbollah had only two ministers in government, but the Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is affiliated with the organization, claimed that Hezbollah's camp received 17 portfolios from government ministers in what was considered an achievement.

"Thanks to Allah and thanks to the efforts of the dedicated people, the government was established, this is a national reconciliation government that will try to deal with the crises in the country immediately," said Al-Hariri at the start of his second term.

- Hezbollah attacked, and Al-Hariri was backed into a corner -

Since then, Al-Hariri, known for his hostility to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, has tried to rise above the fundamental differences between the sides and concentrate on solving the political and economic crises of the country. During his tenure, he succeeded in passing a law that led to the parliamentary elections after they had not been held since 2009. Only two weeks ago, Al-Hariri celebrated the approval of the Lebanese parliament's budget for the first time since his father was assassinated in 2005.

"The approval of the budget is an achievement for Lebanon, the New Age and the government," Al-Hariri chanted on Twitter after the budget was approved.

At the same time, it appeared that Al-Hariri's focus on his achievements and his unwillingness to confront Iran-backed Hezbollah angered the Al-Hariri family’s traditional sponsor -- Saudi Arabia. At first, the Kingdom tried to find its way to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose first visit outside Lebanon was to Riyadh. But quite a few things happened.

ANWAR AMRO (AFP)

Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war intensified over the past year. The security of the organization and of the "axis of resistance" only arose in the background of Islamic State defeats, and following the operation to remove his men from the Syrian-Lebanese border, where Hezbollah has no less significant part than the Lebanese army. The organization's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, continually slammed Saudi Arabia in his speeches and sharpened his tone, while Al-Hariri was being pushed into a corner, and there were occasional reports that Riyadh was not very happy with the Al-Hariri’s performance, The Sunni, at his own expense, like Ashraf Rafi, the former Lebanese justice minister, who is considered one of Hezbollah’s strongest critics in Lebanon.

But perhaps it was possible to discern the signs of this in the recent chant of Al-Hariri, in which he unambiguously attacked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: "Rouhani's statements that the decisions in Lebanon are not made without Iran are groundless and unacceptable. Independent Arab state that will not receive any sponsorship and refuses to harm its honor." He made similar remarks yesterday during his resignation speech.

In September, Al-Hariri denied the existence of Iranian missile factories in his country following the claims made by Israel: "The Israelis are used to conducting campaigns of deception, Hezbollah does not control Lebanon," he claimed.

- The Saudi Critique -

Recently, one of the issues that came to the agenda in Lebanon is the issue of the Lebanese ambassador in Damascus. In recent years, Lebanon has relied on the power of the embassy in Damascus because of the bloody civil war in Syria. The official Lebanese position is a policy of restraint and an attempt to detach itself from the war in order to distance itself from the Assad regime.

However, in the last few days it seems that Al-Hariri has also been pushed into this corner after he approved the appointment of a new ambassador to Damascus in what was perceived as recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian regime. Al-Hariri responded to criticism of the move, saying that "the exaggerated slogans about my resistance against the Syrian regime are cheap, and as for the presence of a Lebanese embassy in Syria, it emphasizes our independence and sovereignty."

The Jewish Forum for Democracy and against Antisemitism e.V. (JFDA e.V.)

At the same time, the verbal clashes between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia continued to worsen, and the Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, continued to threaten the organization while expressing his support for the establishment of an international coalition to fight what he calls "the devil's party and not the party of God."

In one of his speeches, Nasrallah called the same minister a "toddler." Last week, Al-Hariri unexpectedly arrived in Riyadh and met with Saudi Crown Prince Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The announcement of the meeting was laconic, but the meeting is relatively surprising given the large number of indications of Saudi resentment of Al-Hariri's conduct. Later on, Al-Hariri presented a false picture of him and of the Saudi minister, who hated Hezbollah, claiming that they had a long and good meeting. The same minister gave several interviews in which he continued to attack Hezbollah without recognition and even promised "sensational developments" in the coming days.

A day before his resignation, Al-Hariri met with the adviser of Iran's spiritual leader Ali Akbar Velayati, who arrived in Lebanon, and met with senior administration officials and Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah, who said that Iran supports Lebanon's government and stability. He praised Lebanon's achievements in the war against terrorism in the past year, but it appears that after a short meeting on the fence, Al-Hariri chose a side and dropped the political bomb that draws Lebanon deeply into the conflict between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is still not giving up its influence.

Roi Kais is the Arab Affairs Correspondent at Ynet. This article is published courtesy of Ynet.

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