Lebanese PM puts resignation on hold, in surprise reversal
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri walked back his resignation on Wednesday after weeks of intensive international diplomacy aimed at restoring the delicate political balance that has kept the country from being pulled apart by regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Hariri’s decision to stay on, provisionally at least, is an embarrassment to Riyadh, which is widely seen as having orchestrated the resignation. But the kingdom’s increasingly activist leadership — led by the 32-year-old crown prince who is spearheading the kingdom’s foreign policy — can take solace in having revived the conversation about the formidable influence wielded in Lebanon by the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
The reversal capped a dramatic two-and-a-half weeks that saw Hariri resign suddenly from Riyadh on Nov. 4, then traveled to Paris, Egypt, and Cyprus, before finally returning home on the eve of Lebanon’s 74th Independence Day celebrations.
President Michel Aoun received him with a warm embrace at the military parade on Wednesday morning, and the two men sat relaxed and appearing to enjoy each other’s company at the viewing stand.
Aoun had earlier said he would not accept Hariri’s resignation until the prime minister presented it in person. Wednesday was the first opportunity for face-to-face talks.
Hariri later said he presented his resignation, but was asked by Aoun to retract it and allow time for consultations. He acquiesced and said he was looking forward to a “real partnership with all political forces to put Lebanon’s higher interests before any others.”
The reversal highlights the latest Saudi foreign policy overreach under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen as being behind most of the kingdom’s major decisions.
When he resigned, in an uncomfortable, televised statement from Riyadh, Hariri said he was protesting what he called meddling in Arab affairs by Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a partner in the coalition government Hariri formed a year ago.
The resignation sparked a political and diplomatic crisis as Lebanese officials accused the kingdom of pressuring the Saudi-aligned politician to step down. The Lebanese, affronted by the developments, rallied around Hariri, unanimously calling for his return in what became an embarrassment for the kingdom.
The Saudi crown prince, who has the blessing of his father, King Salman, has taken a much harder line against the Sunni kingdom’s main rival — Shiite power Iran, which has spread its influence in the Arab region in recent years.
The crown prince, who is also defense minister, has a reputation for being impulsive. He has led Saudi Arabia into a nearly three-year-long war in Yemen to try and push back Iranian-allied rebels there. A global outcry by aid groups over the tightening of a Saudi blockade in Yemen prompted the Saudis to say they would lift restrictions on urgently-needed humanitarian supplies.
But Hariri’s retraction is not a total loss for the Gulf kingdom, which can point to the newly invigorated debate, mainly in Lebanon, over the extent of Hezbollah’s regional influence, and its formidable military capabilities that rival those of the Lebanese Army.
The group, operating independently of Lebanon’s government, has been fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the brutal civil war next door. Many of Assad’s enemies are rebels backed by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom claims Hezbollah is also advising Iran-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen, in their war against that country’s Saudi-backed government.
Hariri, after meeting Aoun on Wednesday, stressed his support for a return to Lebanon’s official policy of “disassociation” from “the wars, outside conflicts, and regional disputes” — a pointed statement meant for Hezbollah.
Analyst Maha Yahya, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, said Saudi Arabia has “turned the tables” on Hezbollah, a year after Lebanon’s parties and regional sponsors reached a consensus deal to put Aoun — a Christian but also a political ally of the Shiite Hezbollah — in the presidential palace.
Under Lebanon’s delicate balance of power, the country’s president must be a Christian, the prime minster a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite — making any coalition by necessity a product of long negotiations and political give-and-take.
According to Yahya, the Saudi-triggered resignation was basically a statement to the effect that “whatever agreement that was put in place that brought President Aoun to power is now over.”
The Saudi message, Yahya said, was clear: “We want to negotiate a new agreement, one in which the role of Hezbollah is under discussion.”
It remains to be seen what Hariri is demanding and how much room there is to negotiate in order “to at least arrive at some sort of acceptable modus vivendi,” she said.
“Putting the resignation on hold now means there is still room for backdoor negotiations to try and figure a way out of this,” Yahya said.
Hariri’s reversal appears to be a culmination of nearly three weeks of international pressure to restore Lebanon’s delicate political configuration, and return Hariri to Beirut.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has shown a keenness to restore France’s influence in the Middle East, flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Hariri days after his resignation, then sat with Salman and Crown Prince. Days later, the White House issued a statement calling Hariri a “trusted partner” to the United States, adding pressure on Saudi Arabia to clarify the situation.
Macron’s mediation succeeded in getting Hariri out of the kingdom. Hariri was in Paris on Saturday, then, on Tuesday, he traveled to Egypt and Cyprus, meeting with Presidents Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi and Nicos Anastasiades.
Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which boasts deep contacts in the region despite its anti-Saudi stand, reported that officials in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait — allies of Saudi Arabia — were alarmed by the Saudi crown prince’s recent regional maneuvers.
Cypriot government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said in remarks to the private Sigma radio station that Hariri’s visit to Larnaca was “neither by chance or a surprise.”
“The common aim is stability in Lebanon,” he told The Associated Press.
Posters erected around Beirut and other cities welcomed Hariri’s return.
“God give him a long life and protect him,” said Ali Mohiedeen, one of a few thousand well-wishers and party supporters arrived at Hariri’s central Beirut residence on Wednesday afternoon.
About Hezbollah, he said: “It’s time they handover their weapons, it’s time they submit to the realities.”
And as for Hariri, “Sheikh Saad, the step he took, he should have taken it a long time ago,” said Mohiedeen.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Angela Charlton in Paris, Menelaos Hadjicostis in Larnaca, Cyprus, and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.