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Exclusive – Disputes between Lebanese President, Hezbollah ‘Tactical, Not Strategic’

Exclusive – Disputes between Lebanese President, Hezbollah ‘Tactical, Not Strategic’

Tuesday, 6 November, 2018 - 09:30
Lebanese President Michel Aoun holds talks with Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad in November 2017. (NNA)
Beirut - Paula Astih
The dispute that had recently erupted between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and the Hezbollah party has sparked speculation that their 12-year alliance was close to crumbling.

The most recent dispute centers on the party’s insistence on naming Sunni candidates from its March 8 bloc to the new government in opposition to Aoun, who is adamant that the Sunni candidates be independent figures.

The most contentious issue that threatens relations between the two allies is the ongoing political dispute and fractious ties between the FPM and Speaker Nabih Berri. Whenever differences emerge between Berri and the FPM, Hezbollah often sides with the former in order to preserve Shiite unity in Lebanon. The party has repeatedly said that it prioritizes this unity, as demonstrated ahead of the May parliamentary elections.

Prior to the polls, a crisis had erupted between Berri and FPM chief and caretaker Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil when the latter described the speaker as a “thug.” The tensions between the two sides almost escalated into clashes. Hezbollah did not hesitate at the time in declaring its clear solidarity with its Shiite ally against its Christian one.

Moreover, many observers questioned at the time how Hezbollah and the FPM ran rival electoral lists in various Lebanese regions during the polls. They two allies alleged that their electoral interests forced them to field such lists.

In addition, the FPM and Hezbollah have long differed over the extension of parliament’s term. The FPM has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the extension, while the party advocated it. Political disputes and security concerns twice forced parliament to extend its term, once in 2013 and again in 2014.

The thorniest issue between the two allies is that of Lebanese who fled to Israel following its withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. The FPM has supported settling their legal status, while the party has not, despite making many concessions in this file, said research specialist Mohammad Chamseddine of Information International.

These include reducing sentences against those who turn themselves in. If the unreduced sentences are imposed, then suspects would be tried for collaborating with the enemy and given harsh punishments.

Chamseddine told Asharq Al-Awsat that the majority of disputes between Aoun and Hezbollah will remain “tactical, not strategic” as long as they stay in agreement on the “role of the resistance and the need to maintain it.”

The party is keen to preserve its ties with Aoun because he is the only figure capable of offering it “major Christian cover” that its other Christian allies, such as Marada Movement chief Suleiman Franjieh, cannot.

Once a new government is formed, Aoun is expected to propose the issue of the national defense strategy back on the dialogue table in Lebanon.

Hezbollah does not seem too eager to address this issue, which has often been a source of dispute with its opponents given their objection to its weapons arsenal and its usurpation of the state’s war and peace decision-making power.

Head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc MP Mohammed Raad was quick to voice his skepticism over Aoun’s intention to address the defense strategy.

“The resistance is a key factor in Lebanon’s defense strategy. It has played a planning and administrative role to that end,” he added.

“This resistance, which has been embraced by our national people,” does not need texts to dictate its duties and it will remain a necessity as long as Israeli and terrorist threats exist, he declared.

Chamseddine doubted that the defense strategy will spark a new dispute between Hezbollah and the FPM.

“As long as Aoun maintains his support for the resistance’s defense role, then no tensions should emerge during the discussions,” he explained.

In fact, Aoun’s proposal could act as a favor to Hezbollah whereby the defense strategy could offer official and political cover for its contentious role in Lebanon, he said.

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