Elections in Palestine and a Hezbollah-led Government in Lebanon

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Lost in the news barrage on Egypt are two important developments elsewhere in the region: the scheduling of new elections in West Bank and Gaza and the attempt to create a Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon.

According to an Arab News report, “Ghassan Al-Khatib, spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said, ‘The government has instructed the Palestinian Central Elections Committee (CEC) to undertake needed preparations.’ Al-Khatib added that the elections would be held only in the West Bank if Hamas refuses to hold them in the Gaza Strip. The last round of local elections took place in 2005.”

According to the daily Yediot Ahronot, “The Palestinian Authority has been trying to set a date for the elections for some time, but it appears that the uprising in Egypt has made leaders wary of similar occurrences in the West Bank. Last week, as riots peaked in Cairo, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced elections would be held as soon as possible.”

Success in similar municipal elections in 2005 enabled Hamas to claim victory in parliamentary elections a year later.  However, Hamas leaders have made it clear that they do not support Palestinian Authority’s call for a new round of elections. Writing for YNet, Elior Levy reports that according to Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, “[t]hese elections are legally invalid and the authority and the Palestinian government in the West Bank have lost the citizens’ support.…We will not be a part of this farce, we will not be a part of its consequences.” Levy added, “Hamas announced last week it would object to elections until a truce could be declared between Gaza and Ramallah.”

Other political factions in the Palestinian territories have expressed support for the government’s decision. The Palestinian News Agency WAFA reports, “Fatah, Palestinian Peoples Party (PPP), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) expressed in separate statements their full cooperation with and support for holding these elections.”

Meanwhile in Lebanon, following the collapse of Saad Hariri and his March 14-led government, the Lebanese president has asked the Hezbollah-led coalition to form a government. Jordan Times carries an AFP article stating, “Lebanese premier-designate Najib Mikati expects this week to form his Cabinet, which will include members of a Hizbollah-led camp but exclude his Western-backed rivals.…” According to sources cited in the article, “Prime Minister Mikati hopes to finalize his consultations and form the government this week.… The next government will include representatives of the (Hizbollah-led) new majority, centrists and technocrats.”

It appears, however, highly unlikely that members of the March 14 movement will participate in the new government. The Lebanese Daily Star reports that, according to a statement by Amin Gemayel, leader of one of the factions within the March 14 movement, “[c]onsultations on the formation of the government have reached a dead end as a result of the conditions put by the March 8 camp.” The report goes on to say that Gemayel “accused Hezbollah and its March 8 allies of seeking to unilaterally control the new government by putting ‘impossible conditions, on the March 14 participation.”

These developments take place amid a tense situation: an international tribunal is beginning hearings on the events surrounding the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Gulf News reports, “Lawyers and judges at a UN-backed tribunal tried on Monday to thrash out the question of what constitutes an act of terrorism, and other legal issues.… Prosecutor Daniel A. Bellemare sent a still-sealed indictment on January 17 to pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen. It is widely expected that members of the Shiite group Hezbollah will be named in the tribunal’s indictment. Hezbollah denies any involvement in Hariri’s slaying and its leader…Hassan Nasrallah, has said his group would “cut off the hand” of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members. Unlike other international courts, the Hariri tribunal can hold trials in absentia if suspects cannot be arrested.”

It was the younger Hariri’s support of the tribunal’s work that got his uneasy coalition in trouble to begin with. As Christopher Dickey asserts in Khaleej Times, “When those investigators finally submitted their sealed indictments to prosecutors in The Hague, Hezbollah demanded Hariri back off and even denounce the tribunal. He refused, at least in public, while looking for a compromise in private. But one of Hariri’s longtime allies in the March 14 movement, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt,  decided to back Hezbollah and  bring down the government.”

Dickey suggests that Hariri has tried to take advantage of the current sentiment in the region and popular mobilization, but with little success: “Even before the parliamentary vote for Mikati, Hariri’s supporters called for a ‘day of anger.’ Roads in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli were blocked with burning tires. Sporadic gun battles were also reported. Hundreds of Hariri supporters, mostly young men, marched through Nour square in central Tripoli carrying signs critical of Hezbollah, including one that read ‘No to Hezbollah’s Prime Minister.’… But hoped-for rallies in Beirut never materialized, and Hariri went on TV in the afternoon to call for calm.”

For its neighbors to the south, a Hizbollah-led government can only be bad news. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister  Silvan Shalom sees the hand of Iran in all of this. According to the Daily Star, in an address to “a security conference attended by Israeli ministers, military officials and university professors, [Shalom] warned that Hezbollah was seeking nothing less than total control over Lebanon… [and] labeled Hezbollah ‘a political party which is aiming 60,000 rockets [against Israel],’ warning that its increased domestic clout opened the way for further Iranian regional influence. ‘If Hezbollah is controlling the new prime minister, it means Iran is taking control.’”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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