Perspectives - March 5, 2021

Maronite Patriarch Reiterates Call For Internationalization, Sparking Tensions with Hezbollah

Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Rai Saturday called for an international conference to solve Lebanon’s crises as he implicitly criticized Hezbollah during a speech attended by thousands of his supporters. “There are no two states in one land, [two] armies in one country,” Rai said during a speech at the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerki. The slogan of the event was “neutrality, sovereignty, stability" where thousands of people had gathered in support of Rai’s call for an international conference to rescue Lebanon from its crises and on the importance of the country’s adherence to a policy of neutrality from regional and international conflicts. Free Patriotic Movement supporters were absent because of their party’s alliance with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah delicately responded to the Maronite Patriarch’s statement. The group’s Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc MP Hassan Fadlallah said, “We respect the authority that Bkirki represents to a group of the Lebanese and we do not want any rift between the Lebanese. Some tried to exploit Bkirki to deepen sectarian disillusionment and divides.” Commenting on al-Rahi’s call for Lebanon’s neutrality, Fadlallah pointed out that ever since 1948, Israel “has not neutralized us in wars and crises,” adding that the jihadist Islamic State group has not also spared Lebanon from its attacks. Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem echoed that sentiment in an interview with Al-Mayadeen, where he adamantly rejected internationalization efforts as inviting additional suffering upon Lebanon, and stressed that the country could not be neutral because – he claimed – Israel, and U.S.-backed takfiri groups refused to allow Lebanon to be neutral.

Hezbollah Deputy-Secretary General Naim Qassem Gives Interview to Al-Mayadeen

Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem gave an hour-long interview this week to Al-Mayadeen’s show “Game of Nations.” Qassem first addressed Lebanese government formation, saying the problem and the solution were domestic and could be easily solved if both President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri were willing to make mutual concessions – per Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s proposal that Aoun gives up his demand for 1/3rd of the cabinet, and that Hariri increases the size of his proposed government from 18 to 20 or 22 ministers. Qassem said his group was ready to mediate talks if requested.

Qassem also reiterated the group’s standing position that Lebanon’s current crises arose from several factors, including the successive failures of several governments, establishing a rentier economy, and U.S. pressure. This latter factor, according to Qassem, included pressuring Lebanon to continue housing 1.5 million refugees while, he claimed, imposing sanctions on Lebanon and its banking sector.

Qassem called on Lebanese judicial authorities to release the results of their investigation into the causes of the Beirut Port Blast. He claimed this was to facilitate delayed insurance payments, but Qassem was likely motivated by having Hezbollah cleared of responsibility for the disaster.  Qassem touched on the murder of Lokman Slim, and said the U.S. Embassy in Beirut orchestrated accusations against his group for the murder.

He also addressed recent comments by Maronite Patriarch Bichara al-Rai, rejecting the Christian clergyman’s call for an international conference on Lebanon and saying that Rai’s proposal for Lebanese neutrality was unrealistic because Israel and ISIS – backed by the United States, in Qassem’s imagination – would not permit it.

Qassem stressed that Bahaa al-Hariri’s foray into Lebanese politics did not constitute a threat to Hezbollah, and that the group’s relationship with the Free Patriotic Movement remained strong and durable. He also dismissed recent threats from Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and said that Hezbollah was not interested in initiating a war with Israel, but would “knock them out” if war erupted.

Biden Administration Mulling Sanctions on Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor

Bloomberg reports that the U.S. is considering sanctions against Lebanon’s long-serving central bank chief as a broader investigation into the alleged embezzlement of public funds in the country gathers pace, according to four people familiar with the matter. Officials within the Biden administration have discussed the possibility of coordinated measures with their European counterparts targeting Riad Salameh, who’s led the Middle Eastern nation’s monetary authority for 28 years. The discussion has so far focused on the possibility of freezing Salameh’s overseas assets and enacting measures that would curtail his ability to do business abroad. Deliberations are ongoing and a final decision over whether to act may not be imminent. Should any measures be imposed, it would be a rare instance in which a foreign government has acted against the sitting head of a central bank over alleged corruption. However, on Friday, a U.S. official toldThe National that the Bloomberg report wasn’t true. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut’s media spokesperson also denied the report.

Lebanese Pound Collapses to Record Low, Sparking Renewed Protests

The Lebanese pound held at the LL10,000 against the dollar on the black market on Wednesday, a day after the currency's plunge sparked nationwide protests. Exchange dealers were buying the greenback for LL9,950 and those few dealers who were willing to sell it did so at LL10,000. The pound traded at LL9,800-LL10,000 Tuesday, a record low. The decline was the last straw for many who have seen prices of consumer goods such as diapers or cereals nearly triple since the crisis erupted. Protesters shut down a main highway out of the capital Beirut and the airport road. People took to the streets in other cities as well.

Lebanese Man Detained by Israeli Forces for Crossing Border

A Lebanese man was detained by Israeli forces overnight Sunday after he crossed into Israeli territory near Har Dov and immediately transferred him to interrogation, the Israel Defense Forces stated. Israel released the detained man, reported as being in his mid-twenties, from the south Lebanon village of Habbariyeh in the Hasbaya District, on Tuesday. Lebanese sources reported his name as Hussein A.Q.