Experts: 'Der Spiegel report won't tip elections'

Experts: Allegations of Hizbullah link to Hariri killing unlikely to majorly affect Lebanese elections.

lebanon hizbullah elections 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon hizbullah elections 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The magazine report linking Hizbullah to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri will be unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the country's upcoming parliamentary elections, say experts on Lebanon "It will not have a major effect on elections," Timur Goksel, former senior adviser to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), told reporters this week. "We don't have a major swing vote in Lebanon that is bound to move according to developments." There might be "a slight negative impact" on votes for Michele Aoun, a Christian who is allied with the Hizbullah-led opposition, which could provide a needed boost to the troubled Western-backed, ruling March 14 coalition, he said. But Goksel said he predicted no major impact on the tight race. The report in German magazine Der Speigel contended that investigators of the special UN tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri now believe that Hizbullah was behind his assassination but are keeping their findings secret for the time being. After the assassination, most Lebanese believed that Syria was responsible for his death, a claim which the country has adamantly denied. Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah said Monday that he would deal with the report "as an Israeli accusation against Hizbullah," and an earlier statement from the Shi'ite movement said it was an attempt to discredit it ahead of the hotly contested June 7 election. While the German report may not necessarily affect the outcome of the elections, "it will heat up the pre-election atmosphere," said one Western observer based in Lebanon. "It will create a lot of buzz, a lot of speculation. It may wither away if the tribunal continues to say nothing about this… but if they indicate there is some truth in the story, it will create a lot of problems in Lebanon. It will certainly heighten pre-election speculation." Because voting is largely based on communal affiliations - the majority of Shi'ites, for example, tend to vote for Hizbullah - such a report is not likely to carry too much weight, said Eyal Zisser, director of Tel Aviv University's (TAU) Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. Yet experts caution that it is too early to determine the veracity of the report, which relied on an anonymous source for its information. Similarly, the evidence mentioned in the report has yet to be produced. In addition, "many of the people named in the Spiegel article are no longer with us and can no longer speak," said Jonathan Spyer, a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. "(Capt.) Wissam Eid, who was presumably responsible for investigating this issue, was murdered last year by unknown persons, so this person cannot speak about the issue." And the main Hizbullah man - according to the article - whose telephone call led the investigation in this direction, had also disappeared, he said. "We don't yet have the full story" as the international tribunal investigating the assassination has yet to come forward and reveal its findings, Spyer said. "It's a very partial picture, but it's not the first time that people have suspected Hizbullah's involvement and it seems to raise plausible motives, so we'll see." Others, however, say they are not convinced that Hizbullah had a plausible motive to kill Hariri. "It's a fascinating story but it falls down when it comes to motive," said the Western observer in Lebanon, who asked to remain anonymous. "Hizbullah is not in a position to unilaterally assassinate someone of the stature of Rafik Hariri, whatever they thought about him, as this would have consequences for Iran and Syria, its benefactors." In addition, Nasrallah likely recognized that Hariri wasn't really a threat to Hizbullah, that he was someone who could be used for his international contacts for the benefit of "the resistance" movement, he said. Less than a month before he was killed, Hariri was able to sway then-French president Jacques Chirac not to support putting Hizbullah on the European Union's list of terrorist organizations, something that Nasrallah was particularly grateful for, he said. In addition, he said, Nasrallah had been attempting to help forge some kind of reconciliation between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad at the time. Whether the allegations of Hizbullah's involvement turn out to be true or false, most experts agree that the timing of "the leak" appears to be connected to the upcoming elections. "There would be a clear interest for people who are opposed to Hizbullah in the elections to reveal information of this kind at this time," Spyer said. "One should not forget the political context, which is also a reason for skepticism to a degree." Experts agree, too, that if the allegations were proven to be true, the consequences would be very serious for the movement, and even for the country itself. It would very seriously damage Hizbullah's image not only in Lebanon but throughout the Arab world, Spyer said. "Hizbullah has always been keen to try to play down its terrorist aspect… They have always been keen to stress the political, social, educational and particularly [the] Lebanese aspects of their activities," he said. "If true, it would be a massive blow to these attempts." If the allegations turn out to be true, Lebanon would become more polarized, with Hizbullah withdrawing into its own bubble and sectarianism becoming worse than it is today, Goksel said. Certainly, he said, "the Sunni-Shi'ite rift will be more pronounced in Lebanon and elsewhere." "I think it would be a disaster for Lebanon, if it turns out to be true," the Western observer said. "Indictments will be issued (against Hizbullah) and so on." But director of TAU's Moshe Dayan Center Eyal Zisser said it would be impossible to force Hizbullah, which is not recognized by the international community, to hand over its own people if indictments were to be issued. "It's unlikely that something would come out of it," he said. "Hizbullah would have to cooperate, and no, I don't think they would." AP contributed to this report.