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Deferred Settlement

Will 2024 witness a breakthrough in Lebanon’s presidential impasse?

10 April 2024

In recent weeks, numerous local and international indicators have suggested that Lebanon's prolonged presidential vacuum may be nearing its end. Following the conclusion of President Michel Aoun's term on October 31, 2022, there is a renewed momentum for elections, marking the first significant progress in this direction. This momentum has been bolstered by the National Moderation Bloc's initiative and the involvement of a five-member committee comprising the ambassadors of the United States, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, in collaboration with Lebanese parties. Despite these efforts to pave the way for elections, Lebanon's political elite faces persistent obstacles within the country's political landscape.

Dynamic Variables

A number of variables have emerged in the Lebanese political scene and have had an impact on it. These changes have played a significant role in ending the presidential deadlock. The following are the key factors contributing to this resolution:

1- The Gaza war:

Both internal and international powers have surrendered to the idea that Lebanon’s political standstill would persist. This was attributed to rudimentary efforts – particularly in light of the failure of twelve consecutive parliamentary sessions to elect a president. The Hamas-led October 7 Al-Aqsa Flood Operation which triggered the war on Gaza and the resulting escalation in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, spelled change on both the internal and external levels. 

Internally, Hezbollah is also seeking to enhance its own popularity by supporting Gaza's resistance factions. Additionally, Hezbollah's stance aims to shield Lebanon from the repercussions of the conflict and solidify its position as a resistance force. As a result, this further empowers the militant group to assert their presidential options despite facing significant political pushback.

Externally, regional and international powers, which initially accepted the extended presidential vacuum, found an opportunity to reopen the issue as the situation escalated on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Their approach was based on the fact that the engagement of internal forces, including Hezbollah, in political developments would ease tensions on Israel's northern front and curb their escalation by Hezbollah into a full-scale war. Additionally, the presence of a president in Lebanon, rather than a caretaker government, would advance negotiations to reduce escalation and advocate for the implementation of U.N. resolution 1701. The latter, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, calls for the full cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon to be replaced by Lebanese and UNIFIL forces deploying to southern Lebanon, and the disarmament of military groups including Hezbollah. 

2- National moderation bloc initiative:

The National Moderation Bloc was established in June 2022 and comprises previous members of the Future Movement who ran in the last elections as independents. These deputies include Ahmed Al-Kheir, Walid Al-Ba’areni, Mohammed Suleiman, Sajee Attieh, Abdul Aziz Al-Samad, and Ahmed Rustom.  In  February 2024, the bloc presented an initiative to revive the presidential election process. The initiative primarily involves consultations among parliamentary blocs to agree on one or more presidential nominees, followed by successive sessions to elect a president. The process is set to be conducted without any of the factions intentionally withdrawing their deputies to sabotage the requisite quorum. Following deputies’ consultations with parliamentary factions to convince them of the initiative, most expressed their support. Hezbollah described the endeavor as positive but postponed its response to a later time. 

In parallel with the National Moderation Bloc’s initiative, Maronite figures, led by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, are working to unify Christian forces. This undertaking may be interpreted as furthering the rift between the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. As tensions escalated on the southern front with Israel, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil rejected the idea of a "unity of battlefields." He even accused Hezbollah of using the war to advance foreign political agendas and reiterated his opposition to the party's candidate, Suleiman Frangieh. This coincided with a shift in the Free Patriotic Movement's relationship with Christian forces, particularly the Phalange Party led by Sami Gemayel. Gemayel went so far as to describe Bassil as a strategic ally. While there may be some common ground among the main Christian forces (Kataeb, the Lebanese Forces party, and the Free Patriotic Movement) in their rejection of the Shiite duo's candidate, Suleiman Frangieh, this shared point of opposition is not enough to unite them in the presidential elections.

3- Regional and international openness:

The current regional and international focus on Lebanon's presidential deadlock is a significant recent development. This is particularly noteworthy because these forces have been primarily occupied with issues outside of Lebanon. Therefore, the renewed interest in this matter is a crucial factor. Notably, the Quintet Committee, composed of ambassadors from the United States, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to Lebanon, has taken the lead in this context. The committee has conducted multiple meetings with Lebanese stakeholders, who have all embraced the National Moderation Bloc's initiative as a starting point to garner support and overcome obstacles.

Despite the foreign ambassadors expressing enthusiasm during these meetings, their decision to set a date for resuming the talks after Eid al-Fitr may indicate the magnitude of the challenges they faced. This is particularly evident given the insistence of the Shiite duo (Hezbollah and al Amal) that the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, preside over the consultation sessions. However, the opposition rejected this demand because Berri himself represented a political party. Additionally, the duo rejected the idea of holding an open session of talks until a new president is elected. Instead, they have chosen to have successive discussions followed by a session that requires a two-thirds majority to elect a president in the first round.

In addition to the Quintet Committee's movements, Qataris are actively engaged in various activities. On March 8, 2024, Doha received Ali Hassan Khalil, the political aide to the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri. Similarly, reports indicate that the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, also visited Doha in March 2024. Furthermore, on March 9, 2024, Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, met with Sheikh Saud bin Abdulrahman, the Qatari ambassador to Lebanon. There are also reports of an upcoming visit by Bassil to Doha. This significant Qatari involvement, coupled with Doha's efforts to mediate the Gaza crisis, suggests that the United States has given its approval to Doha's initiatives as an alternative to France's efforts. Despite the numerous visits by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French President's envoy, the French have not achieved any breakthroughs.

Deferred Constants 

Amidst the various variables at play, there are certain constants that have gained stability in the issue of electing a president for Lebanon. These constants include:

1- The Shiite duo’s position:

All the internal and external movements clash with the position of Hezbollah, the most powerful party in the Lebanese equation, and its ally, the Amal Movement. The duo has consistently insisted on their candidate, Suleiman Frangieh, the leader of the Marada Movement, and has shown no willingness to withdraw his nomination. Hezbollah has repeatedly stated that the next president must be someone who "protects the back of the resistance, or at least does not betray it." This viewpoint has been rejected by the opposition, which advocates for a "sovereign" president who does not align with Hezbollah and continues to call for the disarmament of the militant group. Given Hezbollah's stubborn insistence on Frangieh, which is rooted in various considerations, it is unlikely that the Shiite duo will abandon their candidate. Even if Hezbollah were to agree to forego Frangieh, it is doubtful that the group would agree on a "sovereign" candidate, as the opposition does not support the trinity of "the people, the army, the resistance."

2- The external factor:

Traditionally, external influence has played a crucial role in the process of electing a president for Lebanon. This process is shaped by regional and international dynamics, as well as the relationships between the involved powers and any resulting agreements. It can be argued that the election of Lebanon's president will continue to be influenced by understandings that may emerge between the United States and Iran regarding various regional issues. However, such understandings have not yet been reached due to the focus on the consequences of the Gaza war and the escalation in the Red Sea. Moreover, there are internal concerns, particularly the upcoming US elections, which may postpone the impact of this external factor on the election of a new Lebanese president.

3- Surrender to the outcome of the Gaza war:

 In light of Hezbollah's involvement in the ongoing escalation with Israel in southern Lebanon, and its continued support of Palestinian resistance factions, it is unlikely that any breakthroughs will be achieved in the issue of electing a new president before the fate of the Gaza war and its outcome are clarified. This is particularly true given the barrage of statements from Israeli military leaders emphasizing the necessity of preemptive action against Hezbollah in Lebanon. If such action were to occur, it would have significant political, military, economic, and social implications for Lebanon.

Additionally, if the efforts led by the US Special Envoy, Amos Hochstein, succeed in implementing U.N. Resolution 1701, the Lebanese political and military equation may change. This resolution would involve de-escalation through a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, the deployment of the Lebanese army forces south of the Litani River up to the southern borders, and the demilitarization of the area. Therefore, it is not expected that pressure will intensify to elect a new president unless a permanent, or at least a long-term, ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

In conclusion, despite the positive indicators of the growing movement to fill the presidential vacuum in Lebanon, there are enduring obstacles that may postpone the settlement to a later stage. It is important to note that this development has not yet received genuine attention from the U.S., which is necessary to achieve a breakthrough. Once sufficient attention is given to Lebanon, a settlement will become possible. This settlement could be within the same framework as the settlement in Gaza or as a complement to it.