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Beirut Cabinet Crisis, Take Four

Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati's pledge to fund the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is threatening to bring down his government.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 10/3/2011, 10:57 PM

The fledgling government of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati is facing its fourth cabinet crisis in just as many months of rule, again raising questions over just how long Beirut's Hizbullah-dominated government can last.

Even before Mikati's cabinet was formed bitter divisions over funding for the Hague-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon threatened to bring the newly elected government down and to send Lebanese voters right back to the polls. Hizbullah and its March 8 allies, which now hold a majority in Mikati’s 30-man Cabinet, have dismissed the tribunal as “an American-Israeli court” designed to target the terror group.

Only a vague twelfth-hour formulation leaving the matter undecided allowed the government to publish its plan for governance before the 30 day deadline.

The simmering backroom row over the STL, acierated by the tribunal's indictment earlier this year of four Hizbullah terrorists in the 2005 assassination of then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, was shortly sidelined over a near-collapse inducing feud over power bill still being debated in ministerial committees.

Previously 11 pro-Hizbullah ministers threatened to quit over the STL before being brought back to the table by their own parties. But this weekend it finally boiled over following statements made in New York last month by President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, signaling in no uncertain terms that Beirut would meet its international obligations to the STL.

Mikati's decision to back the STL came as his nation found itself under international scrutiny as September's chair for the UN Security Council, raising concerns failing to support the tribunal would lead to charges of hypocrisy; and amid intense ongoing criticism from March 14 opposition parties who accuse Hizbullah of using its arms and militias to undermine the will of the people and impose its extremist policies on Beirut.

The government of leading opposition figure, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri – son of slain Rafiq Hariri – was itself brought down by Hizbullah over his support and funding for the STL. Now Mikati finds himself looking down the same barrel.

“The stances that the president and the prime minister have announced about funding the tribunal do not bind the government. They are merely a matter of opinion,” pro-Hizbullah Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas said in a radio interview Sunday.

“The issue of the tribunal’s funding needs to be discussed by the Cabinet, something which has not happened yet," he added.

Hizbullah’s Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish declined to comment on Mikati’s remarks on funding the tribunal.

“Hizbullah’s position on the STL is well known,” he told The Daily Star.

Sources close to the Prime Minister told the Daily Star Mikati was meeting with Sleiman to determine a strategy ahead of Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, where the STL dispute is expected to be front and center.

“Behind-the-scene contacts have been launched with the parties concerned to find a satisfactory solution for the problem over the financing of the tribunal,” the source said.

The source said that Mikati’s stance, which was spelled out in his speeches and statements in Beirut and New York, supported the payment of Lebanon’s $32-million funding to the STL.

“Prime Minister Mikati sees that Lebanon’s interest lies in fulfilling its commitments to UN resolutions, particularly Resolution 1757 that established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” the source said.

Whether Mikati can do that and keep his government afloat remains to be seen.