For seven months there was no daylight in the dragging negotiations for a new government among Lebanon’s rival factions and groupings. This week saw a sudden breakthrough, and it looks as though a cabinet will finally take shape in the coming days. What happened? HIzballah’s Hassan Nasrallah began feeling the heat coming at him from events resulting from the IDF operation for uncovering his cross-border tunnels.
He counted the UNSC session called on Wednesday, Dec. 19 to discuss the Israeli operation against its tunnels as the first move of an organized US-Israel drive to cut his organization down to size. Even if a motion to condemn Hizballah was defeated, he figured, it was just one step in a plan secretly hatched in Brussels on Dec. 3 between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Their aim was to liberate the Lebanese army from its subservience to Hizballah, threaten Lebanese banks with sanctions if they continued to process the illicit financial transactions of Hizballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and an effort to empower UNIFIL for ensuring compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 with regard to Lebanon. (This strategy was outlined in detail by DEBKA Weekly 827 on Dec. 7.)
Preparing for the worst, Nasrallah moved fast this week with moves to pre-empt a clash with the IDF by pulling his South Lebanese forces out of the way and by a major hustle to get a government installed in Beirut.
• On Dec. 17, he ordered the main Hizballah command for South Lebanon evacuated from Maaroub near the Litani River to the Mediterranean town of Tyre.
• Its observation towers opposite the Israeli border were abandoned except for a handful of Hizballah watchers.
• Hizballah agents disappeared after hanging around the Israeli border to report on IDF movements, disguised as local villagers,; a plan to call up mass demonstrations against the IDF was scrapped.
• The trucks and motorbikes sporting yellow Hizballah flags driving to and fro just across the border disappeared.
• Military communications networks and operatives’ cell phones were silenced.
With Hizballah forces moved to a safe distance from the IDF, the Hizballah chief got down to setting up a government in Beirut. He secretly assigned the Lebanese General Security Chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim with taking the process out of the hands of the politicians and undertaking the task himself.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources point to Gen. Ibrahim’s special qualifications for the task. While not a Hizballah adherent himself, he knows exactly who rules the roost in the country, which is why he was given charge of security at Beirut International Airport so that there would be no interference with the Iranian transport planes landing there with arms for Hizballah. He also turned a blind eye to the three workshops which Hizballah has planted around the airport for upgrading its short and medium range missiles with precision-guidance capacity.
But Nasrallah can also trust him to choose the right candidates for the key posts. The Intelligence chief is well armed with the private dossiers on all of Lebanon’s political bigwigs. With knowledge of their hidden isdemeanors, crimes and peccadillos he has enough leverage to decide, in close consultation with Nasrallah, who is fit and who is not to serve in government and to share out the ministerial portfolios.
The pair’s key choices are revealed here by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources:
1, The incumbent prime minister Saad Hariri will stay on but his supporters in the cabinet are to be whittled down to minority status. Nasrallah needs this pro-Western Sunni leader as a figurehead to show the West that the new government is not a vassal of Iran or Hizballah.
2. Three Nasrallah allies from different factions will also remain. They are Yaacoub Sarraf as Minister of National Defense. He is loyal to President Michel Aoun, a friend of Nasrallah; Lebanese army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun, who is related to the president; and Gerge Bassil Gebran, who is married to the president’s daughter, as foreign minister.
3. Hizballah’s leader will personally pick the new health minister. He aims to take over Lebanon’s medical system including hospitals, our sources report, because it can serve him as a lever for recouping the political influence that was eroded when Hizballah went to war for Bashar Assad in Syria.
Nasrallah believes that a functioning, legitimate government speedily inaugurated in Beirut will provide him with his strongest weapon for beating back the US-Israeli pressure building up against him and his organization and defend him against negative UNSC resolutions and sanctions.
Gen. Ibrahim did not let the grass grow. By Tuesday, Dec. 18, he was ready to announce that, after talks with the Consultative Gathering of MPs, an “initiative” to ease the government formation impasse had been “crowned with success.”
Without offering any further information about the cabinet’s makeup, the intelligence chief added: “I want to extend my gratitude to President Michel Aoun [for his week-long consultations with the parties] and went on to say: “All political parties have made concessions in order to make the formation happen.”