- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2011

The collapse of Lebanon’s unity government presents a dilemma to U.S. policymakers — support the pursuit of justice in a U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri or support a stable, secure and prosperous Lebanon.

U.N. investigators have kept mum about their findings, but Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah already has addressed the possibility that members of his group might be indicted and has denounced the tribunal as an “Israeli plot.”

The fear is that if the tribunal implicates senior Hezbollah figures or the security apparatus of Syria, that might provoke violence by Hezbollah, whose militia proved itself easily able to overrun most of Beirut in 2008.

U.S. officials, who have sought to shore up international support for the tribunal, reject the idea that there is a trade-off between justice and stability.

“Lebanon should not be forced into a false choice between justice and stability. Like all nations, Lebanon deserves both,” a State Department official authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Times.

Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim extremist group that the U.S. has designated a terrorist group, is a legal political party in Lebanon and leads one of the largest groupings in the country’s parliament. When its ministers pulled out of the coalition government Wednesday, the government collapsed, precipitating a new cycle of political crisis and fears of renewed civil strife.

Hezbollah wants the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the murdered politician, to cut off funding for and cooperation with the tribunal.

But that will not stop the judicial process, according to analyst David Schenker with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There are mechanisms for other countries to pick up the [funding] slack,” he told The Times. “This is out of Lebanon’s hands,” he said, calling the tribunal “almost a force of nature at this point.”

What Hezbollah really wants, Mr. Schenker said, is for Mr. Hariri to denounce the inquiry into his father’s murder, robbing it of credibility and softening what otherwise would be a body blow to Hezbollah.

Even if no one is arrested or tried for the 2005 plot, “the damage [to Hezbollah] will be done when the indictments are issued,” Mr. Schenker said.

Hussein Ibish, a Lebanese-American scholar and blogger who works for a Palestinian advocacy group, disagreed. He said Hezbollah has undermined the legitimacy of the tribunal among the Shiite community.

“Their constituency in Lebanon is buying their obfuscation,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of muddying the waters” about the tribunal’s investigation and about who was behind the Hariri assassination.

Aram Nerguizian, a scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agreed: “Of all the geopolitical players in the Levant, Hezbollah is the most successful at packaging and communicating its messages.”

All three analysts said there is a risk of violence but played down the threat of renewed civil war. “There is no one who will benefit by that,” Mr. Nerguizian said.

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at 123@example.com.

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