BEIRUT, Lebanon — In a move that could have a far-reaching impact on both Lebanon and the Middle East, Hezbollah and its allies today quit the year-old Lebanese coalition government, forcing the disintegration of the U.S.-backed administration of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Analysts said the resignations would likely force Hariri’s resignation and could end Lebanese involvement in the U.N.-backed court investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.
Judith Palmer Harik, a political analyst in Lebanon, said Hezbollah and its allies — 11 ministers in all — resigned in order to force the formation of a government that would meet its demand to end Lebanese support for the U.N. tribunal.
“The only sensible thing to do was to bring the government down by leaving,” she said.
In the past few months, tensions have simmered here as Lebanon awaited the results of the tribunal’s investigation, which most expected would indict members of Hezbollah in connection with the Hariri assassination.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly blasts the court, calling it a political tool to discredit Hezbollah, and vowing to "cut the hand" of anyone who attempts to arrest its members.
Lebanon will have to now scramble to form a new government in the aftermath of the resignations. Harik said any new government will have to be amenable to Hezbollah’s demands, or it will remain unformed.
Outside of its role as a formidable Lebanese political party, Hezbollah also acts as a Shiite militia group that is backed by Iran and Syria, and the United States has designated it a terrorist organization.
It also has the most powerful military in Lebanon.
“A friendly government will end Lebanon’s participation in the court,” she said. “Hezbollah and its allies have the weight to block any government that would not be of their interests.”
In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and Syria have been attempting to broker a deal that would essentially force Saad Hariri to withdraw his government’s support for the court in order to maintain Lebanese and regional stability.
On Monday, Lebanese officials announced the deal had failed.
The announcement of the resignations came as Prime Minister Hariri met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. Last weekend, he met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who reiterated U.S. support for the tribunal.
Lebanese Energy Minister Jebran Bassi, a Hezbollah ally, announced the resignation of the ministers, urging the quick formation of a new cabinet. He accused the Hariri government of supporting U.S. interests over the interests of Lebanon and the region.
“The prime minister is faced with choosing either Beirut and Washington or Beirut and any other capital,” he said according to local news source, Naharnet. He also said the decision to leave the government conforms to Lebanese law.
Labor Minister Butros Harb spoke on behalf of March 14, the coalition of parties formed after the death of Rafik Hariri, and lead by the current prime minister. Although Harb said the March 14 group would not announce its official position until the prime minister returns to Lebanon, he did indicate continued support for the international tribunal.
“We believe that bargaining is being attempted at the expense of justice,” he said, according to Naharnet.
Harb also urged opposition leaders to maintain peace and security.
Hilal Khashan, a Lebanese political analyst, said it would not be in Hezbollah’s interest to use its military might to take over Lebanon. He said Syria-U.S. negotiations have prevented that scenario because Syria has promised to intervene if Hezbollah attempts to take over Beirut.
In 2008, Hezbollah proved a takeover was possible by over-running West Beirut in a matter of days — bringing the country the closest it’s been to war since a 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
“The US was mightily upset with the invasion of Beirut,” Khashan said.
For the Lebanese people, Khashan said the collapse of the government will not result in immediate change. Since the political clashes began over the tribunal, the government has been completely stagnated and incapable of performing its duties to the people, he said.
“It will only formalize the state of paralysis,” he said.