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Monday, August 16, 2010

What It All Means

On the International Tribunal Investigating Rafiq Hariri’s Assassination
  
Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has, over the course of five years, deteriorated from a genuine political thriller into a typical Lebanese farce, let me start at The End and jog forward from there: the file of the international tribunal that was set up to investigate the murder has been slammed shut.

The investigation that initially threatened to topple the Syrian regime and promised to squeeze out a tiny bit of the puss that keeps Lebanese politics at fever-pitch has fizzled into yet another embarrassing example about how utterly silly and unnervingly dangerous Lebanon can be.  For a very short while there, right after the murder, you thought you were watching the Manchurian Candidate, only to discover, barely months into the act, that you were in fact sitting through Robert Moore’s Murder by Death. Plenty of giggles, but, alas, no David Niven, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, or Truman Capote on this set; just the usual hooligans running amuck in Lebanon’s theater of the absurd.

Extraordinarily, but never surprisingly for us Lebanese, everything that could go wrong with the investigation did—and, as a friend kindly pointed out, everything that could have gone right did not. Key witnesses turned into false; three intelligence chiefs were arrested only to be released after three evidence-poor years; a chain of cell phones making a chain of calls right before and after the hit, once deemed damning, has just been relabeled as dodgy after the discovery of an Israeli-sponsored spy ring that, from all appearances, had infiltrated our telecom system… By the time old, crucial allies, like the Druze’s Walid Jumbulatt, had defected a few weeks ago, the tribunal was practically friendless and defenseless.

And now, the coup de gr√Ęce: an enthralling two-hour long press conference by Siyyed Hassan Nassrallah, the head of Hezbollah, who, with aerial footage of Israeli espionage in action, spies’ testimonies about suspicious Hariri-related chores and tasks and a load full of oomph and logic, first reduced the heretofore ironclad case against Syria and (as of late) the Party of God itself into a series of question marks, sinister schemes and doubts, and then, by way of a bonus for those who have long been waiting to wipe it in March 14’s face, graciously asked the other camp to put its tail between its legs and carry out the mercy-killing itself.

It’s over! It remains for the constantly overwhelmed and the ever so underwhelming Sa’ad Hariri, the son of the late Rafiq and the current prime minister of Lebanon, to take up Nassrallah on his offer, which, after all, would be only the last of many he has taken up from friends and patrons that have so far seen him sleep in Bashar Assad’s Damascene den.

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But what does it all mean?

Well, for the moment at least, it means two things of infinite more significance than the tribunal and who actually killed Rafiq Hariri.

For Israel and Lebanon, it means that a moody year has just turned even more unpredictable. Recently, many of the people living in our underworld courtesy of the Jewish state have been popping up like bubbles out of a swamp. The revelations, including Nassrallah’s blow-by-blow, point to an Israeli infestation of state and society. One hundred fifty individuals are already under custody, the biggest catch of whom is Fayez Karam, a former head of the military’s counter-espionage unit, a principal member of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and one of the General’s closest confidantes.  

Since covert war became Israel’s battle of choice against Hezbollah after the 2006 faceoff, the policy implications for both are, to say the least, very serious and potentially venomous. No doubt, Israel is already very hard at work revisiting the rules of engagement.

(As an aside: if you are even vaguely familiar with Arab political folklore, I don’t have to tell you that all this is sweet vindication for our conspiracy theorists. Who would dare snigger or roll their eyes now when Hezbollah talks of “environments that cradle spies and traitors.”)

For us Lebanese and for our competing sponsors, it means that in the game of politics, Sa’ad and his entourage are no match for Hezbollah and its Nassrallah. Not that many of us did not know this from the start, and not that this will have any impact on our rock solid sectarian loyalties. But it just so happens that there is much more that goes on in Lebanon than sectarian nitpicking, and in that high stakes regional contest those who are lined up behind Hezbollah must be feeling somewhat more confident about the odds.

Over the past five years, the Shiite movement’s mistakes--the offensive finger wagging, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, the guns turned in the direction of Beirut and the mountains, the financial scandals…--have been many. But the party’s more recent impressive tactics (and Nassrallah’s own performances) show a team that evaluates and learns from yesterday’s lapses. A feat that seems entirely too daunting for Sa’ad, whose reputation as a featherweight began to take shape when he literally disappeared (rumor had it that he had a breakdown) for an entire week after Hezbollah’s men came calling in May 2008, and finally established deep roots on that supposedly historic day in 2009, when his government received Parliament’s vote of confidence and he proceeded to literally laugh his way through a speech as breathtaking in its ineptness as he clearly is in his.