Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation is an ominous sign that the relative stability Israel has enjoyed in the North might not last much longer.
A number of factors have come together to bring Lebanon to the brink of a major political and economic crisis that could easily deteriorate into civil war and a military conflict with Israel.
Ostensibly, the trigger is Hariri’s resignation, tendered under pressure from Saudi Arabia’s leaders King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, and his son Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Unlike previous Saudi leaders, the two have aggressively confronted Iran on a number of fronts, from Yemen and Syria to Iraq and Lebanon. It was these two men who brought Hariri back as prime minister after he served as an ineffectual leader between 2009 and 2011 under constant threats from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, which are responsible for assassinating his father and predecessor Rafik Hariri.
And it is now Saudi Arabia that has ordered Hariri to resign. There are a number of potential reasons for the decision. Pulling Hariri out of office ends the current status quo that allowed Hezbollah to continue to strengthen its military power, in part by transferring Iranian arms from Syria Lebanon, while the day-today running of the country was done by coalition members.
Now, the Saudis are hoping that Hezbollah will be stuck with the blame and responsibility for dealing with issues such as Lebanon’s economic recession and caring for a million Syrian refugees.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he will not tolerate a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, let alone in Lebanon. And according to foreign media reports, the IDF has launched strikes on a number of occasions to prevent Hezbollah from smuggling game-changing Iranian arms technology into Lebanon from Syria.
At the same time, the Hariri resignation might also be the result of the Saudis’ realization that they have failed in their attempt to influence the course of Lebanese politics through the prime minister. Indeed, more harm than good has come out of the present political stability. At this point, shaking up Lebanese politics has more benefits for the Saudis.
It would be unfair, however, to claim that the Saudis alone have initiated the crisis in Lebanon. The truth is that Iran, via Hezbollah, has been pushing for a confrontation. Hariri’s government was losing control over its foreign policy and security issues, as he was serving as a cover for a Hezbollah-dominated government.
With all their losses, Iran and Hezbollah have emerged victorious from the war in Syria, which is now winding down. If in the past Iran and Hezbollah were unable to devote attention and resources to influencing events in Lebanon because of their commitments in Syria, today with the war there essentially over, the two can now refocus efforts. The Saudis hope to prevent continued Iranian encroachment by precipitating a domestic crisis in Lebanon.
Iran is attempting to put the blame for the crisis on the Saudis. To delegitimize these efforts, it is claiming the Saudis are in cahoots with America and the Zionists.
“Repeating the baseless allegations of Zionists, Saudis and Americans against Iran… proves this resignation is a new scenario to create fresh tensions in Lebanon and the region,” Bahram Ghasemi, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said. In coming days, Iran will undoubtedly double down on its efforts to delegitimize the resignation by claiming it is a “Zionist plot.”
Whatever the reasons for the timing of the resignation, however, Israel must be careful not to be dragged into a military confrontation that does not serve its interests.
The Hariri resignation signals a new era of instability in the North. But it is also an example of how Israel’s interests dovetail with Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan against Iranian influence. Israel should do its best to take advantage of this situation.