WASHINGTON – Soon after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with US President Barack Obama Wednesday in the White House, Hizbullah caused the collapse of his governing coalition when the Islamic party and its allies pulled out over differences stemming from the UN investigation into the assassination of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil announced the move at a televised news conference in Beirut. The Shi’ite group and its partners held 10 of Lebanon’s 30 cabinet seats. An 11th minister, Adnan Sayyed Hussein, also quit, enough to topple the coalition led by the slain prime minister’s son.
The UN tribunal is soon to deliver indictments in the case, which are expected to finger several Hizbullah members. The group has been pushing Saad Hariri to pull Lebanese support for the investigation.
Hariri, however, has refused to do so, and was in Washington Wednesday receiving support from Obama to stay strong in the wake of Hizbullah’s provocations. Hariri departed soon after the meeting to consult with French President Nicolas Sarkozy before returning to Beirut.
“The efforts by the Hizbullah- led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people,” the White House said, in a statement put out following the closed-door conversation.
“The president and prime minister expressed their determination to achieve both stability and justice in Lebanon during this challenging period of government volatility, and agreed that all parties should avoid threats or actions that could cause instability,” the statement said.
One Lebanese official said after the Oval Office visit that Hariri was pleased with Obama’s expressions of support for Lebanon.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, had sharp words for Hizbullah after it quit the government.
“We view what happened today as a transparent effort... to subvert justice and to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence,” she told reporters while on a visit to Doha, Qatar.
Both Clinton and Obama have in recent days met or spoken with Hariri and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has been trying to tamp down tensions so Lebanon’s stability isn’t once again shattered, to try and maintain support for the work of the tribunal.
Rafik Hariri and 22 others were killed by a roadside bomb in Beirut in February 2005, sparking protests by millions of Lebanese that led to the ouster of Syrian troops from the country after 29 years.
Senior Israeli officials said Jerusalem was “carefully watching” the developments in Lebanon.
“We obviously follow these things very closely, and have an interest in the northern border staying quiet,” one official said.
Another official said this was an internal Lebanese affair and Israel was “not intervening.”
Israel hopes the internal crisis does not lead to an escalation on the border, but, according to officials, it is prepared for any eventuality.
Lebanon expert David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, however, said that violence was fairly unlikely and that Hariri wouldn’t abandon the tribunal.
“It would irrevocably damage his standing among his constituents,” Schenker assessed, adding that in any case, the tribunal would continue to do its work and hand down indictments whatever the stance of the Lebanese government, which will be run in a caretaker capacity for the near term.
“This is a train that’s left the station,” he said.
Since Hizbullah wants the indictments to disappear so as not to jeopardize how the rest of the Lebanese public and Sunni Arab world perceive it, Schenker argued that the likelihood of the group’s sparking a violent confrontation – as opposed to political discord and paralysis – was low.
“I don’t see how that advances their cause,” he said, though he noted that Sunni actors might attack the Shi’ite party once indictments were handed down, likely at a tribunal press conference to be held in Beirut on Friday.
Schenker did, however, suggest that if the tribunal were able to prosecute the 2005 assassination, it could change the cycle of violence that has long dominated Lebanon’s political scene.
“This will once and for all finally hold somebody accountable for political murder in Lebanon. That might ultimately change the status quo in Lebanon,” he said.
Obama made the same case in the meeting with Hariri.
“The president stressed the importance of the work of the Special
Tribunal for Lebanon as a means to help end the era of political
assassinations with impunity in Lebanon,” the White House statement
said. “The president and prime minister specifically discussed united
efforts with France, Saudi Arabia and other key international and
regional actors to maintain calm in Lebanon and ensure that the work of
the tribunal continues unimpeded by third parties.”Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report.