Author Topic: Case of Missing Lebanese Prime Minister Stirs Middle East Tensions  (Read 58 times)

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Posters in Beirut of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, who resigned from his post last week in an announcement on Saudi television. Credit Joseph Eid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MIDDLE EAST
Case of Missing Lebanese Prime Minister Stirs Middle East Tensions
By ANNE BARNARD and DAVID M. HALBFINGER NOV. 10, 2017
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-lebanon-france-macron.html

  "BEIRUT, Lebanon — When the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri made a
   sudden trip abroad last week, it was taken at first to be a routine
   visit with his political patron, Saudi Arabia. But the next day, he
   unexpectedly announced his resignation by video from Riyadh, the Saudi
   capital.
   
   He has yet to return to Lebanon.
   
   On Friday, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, part of his governing
   coalition at home, charged that the Saudis were holding him against his
   will, while the Saudis have said they were protecting him from an
   unspecified assassination plot.
   
   The Hariri case has become just one in a profusion of bewildering
   events — from Saudi Arabia’s arrest of princes and wealthy businessmen
   last weekend to ordering its citizens out of Lebanon on Thursday — that
   are escalating tensions in the Middle East and fueling anxiety about
   whether the region is on the verge of military conflict.
   
   The American secretary of state Rex W. Tillerson warned Friday “against
   any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for
   proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that
   country,” a message apparently aimed at Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia and
   Iran.
   
   Even before the events of the past week, analysts and officials in the
   region had been increasingly anxious about what they see as a volatile
   combination: an impulsive, youthful Saudi leader escalating threats to
   roll back growing Iranian influence, an equally impulsive Trump
   administration signaling broad agreement with Saudi policies, and
   increasingly pointed warnings from Israel  that it may eventually fight
   another war with Hezbollah.
   
   Now analysts and diplomats are scrambling to figure out what the latest
   developments mean, whether they are connected and whether, as some
   analysts fear, they are part of a buildup to a regional war.
   
   Mr. Hariri, until he announced his resignation on Saturday, had shown
   no signs of planning to do so.
   
   Hours later, on Saturday evening, a missile fired from Yemen came close
   to Riyadh before being shot down. Saudi Arabia later blamed Iran and
   Hezbollah
  for the missile, suggesting that they had aided the
   Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen to fire it.
   
   Before the world had a chance to absorb this news, the ambitious and
   aggressive Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the
   arrest of hundreds of Saudis — including 11 princes, government
   ministers and some of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen — in
   what was either a crackdown on corruption, as Saudi officials put it,
   or a purge, as outside analysts have suggested.
   
   It then emerged that on a visit to Riyadh the week before, Jared
   Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who has been sent on
   missions both to Israel and Saudi Arabia, had a previously undisclosed
   meeting with the crown prince, talking with him until the early morning
   hours. The White House has not announced what they discussed but
   officials privately said that they were meeting about the
   administration’s efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
   
   On Monday, Saudi officials said they considered the missile from Yemen
   an act of war by Iran and Lebanon, and on Thursday the kingdom rattled
   Lebanon by ordering its citizens to evacuate.
   
   No one expects Saudi Arabia, which is mired in a war in Yemen, to start
   another war itself. But Israel, which fought a war with Hezbollah in
   2006, has expressed increasing concern about Hezbollah’s growing
   arsenal on its northern border.
   
   On Friday, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that Saudi Arabia
   had asked Israel to attack Lebanon, after essentially kidnapping Mr.
   Hariri.
   
   “I’m not talking here about analysis, but information,” he said. “The
   Saudis asked Israel to attack Lebanon.”
   
   He provided no evidence of his claim, but Western and regional analysts
   have also said that, given all the confusing and unexpected events and
   unpredictable players, they could not entirely rule out such a scenario.
   
   Israeli officials, however, have been publicly predicting another war
   with Hezbollah while also vowing to do all they can to postpone it.
   
   “There are now those in the region who would like Israel to go to war
   with Hezbollah and fight a Saudi war to the last Israeli,” said Ofer
   Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst for International Crisis Group.
   “There is no interest in that here.”
   
   
   President Emmanuel Macron of France meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on Thursday. Credit Saudi Press Agency, via Reuters
   
   Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long considered Iran to be
   Israel’s foremost enemy, a potential nuclear threat as well as a
   strategic adversary seeking to convert postwar Syria into a staging
   ground for attacks against Israel or into a corridor to transfer
   missiles and other weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
   
   So Saudi Arabia’s stepped-up efforts to oppose Iranian influence in
   Lebanon drew measured applause in Jerusalem. But many Israelis fear
   that the aggressive actions by the Saudi crown prince could drag Israel
   into a war that it does not want.
   
   Daniel Shapiro, a former United States ambassador to Israel, said that
   Israel and Saudi Arabia were pursuing similar goals at sharply
   different speeds and levels of proficiency.
   
   “I’m not sure they’re aligned tactically,” he said in an interview.
   Prince Mohammed, he added, “seems very impatient to actually spark the
   confrontation.”
   
   There are no signs of war preparations in Israel. The country is not
   mobilizing troops on its northern border or calling up reservists, and
   Mr. Netanyahu has given no indication that he sees a conflict as
   imminent.
   
   Moreover, Israel’s war planners predict that the next war with
   Hezbollah may be catastrophic, particularly if it lasts more than a few
   days. Hezbollah now has more than 120,000 rockets and missiles, Israel
   estimates, enough to overwhelm Israeli missile defenses.
   
   Many of them are long-range and accurate enough to bring down Tel Aviv
   high-rises, sink offshore gas platforms, knock out Ben-Gurion Airport
   or level landmark buildings across Israel.
   
   Nor is Hezbollah necessarily hankering for battle with Israel,
   according to analysts who study the militant group closely. It is still
   fighting in Syria, where it has been backing the government of
   President Bashar al-Assad, and it is being drained by medical costs for
   wounded fighters and survivor benefits for the families of those
   killed, said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general and former
   head of the country’s National Security Council.
   
   “Hezbollah as an organization is in a very deep economic crisis today,”
   Mr. Eiland said. “But at the same time, the weaker they are, the more
   dependent they are on Iranian assistance — so they might have to comply
   with Iran’s instructions.”
   
   But there have long been fears that now that the Syrian war — in which
   Hezbollah played a decisive role, gaining new influence, power and
   weapons — is almost over, Hezbollah’s enemies might seek to cut it down
   to size.
   
   Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, implied Friday that its fight in
   Syria was nearly finished. If Saudi Arabia’s goal was to force
   Hezbollah to leave Syria, he said: “No problem. Our goal there has been
   achieved. It’s almost over anyway.”
   
   World leaders have sought to tamp down tensions.
   
   President Emmanuel Macron of France left Saudi Arabia on Friday after a
   brief, last-minute meeting with the crown prince.
   
   During the unexpected two-hour visit on Thursday, Mr. Macron
   “reiterated the importance France attaches to Lebanon’s stability,
   security, sovereignty and integrity,” his office said. He also
   discussed “the situation in Lebanon following the resignation of Prime
   Minister Hariri,” his office said, but provided no further details.
   
   A group of countries and organizations interested in Lebanon’s
   stability met Friday with the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, and
   issued a statement expressing “concern regarding the situation and
   prevailing uncertainty in Lebanon” and calling for Lebanon to be
   “shielded from tensions in the region.”
   
   The members of the group, the International Support Group for Lebanon —
   including the United Nations, Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy,
   Russia and the United States, as well as the European Union and the
   Arab League — are not all on the same side of the issues at stake so
   the statement seemed to reflect broad international concern.
   
   At a news conference in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, before the
   meeting, Mr. Macron said he did not share Saudi Arabia’s “very harsh
   opinions” of Iran.
   
   Analysts say a new war in the region is unlikely but some have warned
   that the increased tensions could provoke an economic crisis or even
   start a war accidentally. Miscalculations have started wars before, as
   in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
   
   Experts caution that Israel is often only a mistake or two from being
   drawn into combat.
   
   “It’s a dangerous situation now,” said Amos Harel, the military
   reporter for Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. “It only takes one
   provocation, another reaction, and it can get all of a sudden
   completely out of control. And when you add the Saudis, who evidently
   want to attack Iran and are looking for action, it gets even more
   complicated.”
   
   Correction: November 10, 2017
   Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article
   misstated where President Emmanuel Macron of France met Crown Prince
   Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. They met in Riyadh, not in Abu
   Dhabi.

   
   Correction: November 11, 2017
   An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the nature of a
   trip to Riyadh by Jared Kushner. The trip was not previously
   undisclosed; the trip had been public information, but the fact that
   Mr. Kushner had a long meeting with the Saudi Arabian crown prince,
   Mohammed bin Salman, was previously undisclosed.

   --------
   Follow Anne Barnard and David M. Halbfinger on Twitter: @ABarnardNYT
   and @halbfinger

   
   Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and David M. Halbfinger from
   Jerusalem. Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin from Paris,
   Gardiner Harris from Washington, and Hwaida Saad and Nada Homsi from
   Beirut.

   
   A version of this article appears in print on November 11, 2017, on
   Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Unsettling Acts
   Deepen Tension In Middle East. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
"



``I hope that the fair, and, I may say certain prospects of success will not induce us to relax.''
-- Lieutenant General George Washington, commander-in-chief to
   Major General Israel Putnam,
   Head-Quarters, Valley Forge, 5 May, 1778