Meeting at Baabda Palace ends Druze tensions
BEIRUT - The rival Druze leaders of Lebanon — Walid Jumblatt and Talal Arslan — were brought to a rapprochement meeting at Baabda Palace, attended by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Much of the lobbying was carried out by Berri, who enjoys excellent relations with both the anti-Syrian camp, where Jumblatt stands, and the pro-Syrian one, known as the March 8 Alliance, to which he belongs. Berri and Jumblatt go a very long way back, when they were comrades-in-arms throughout the Lebanese Civil War.
Thanks to Berri, the two sides decided at the August 9 meeting to end gripping tension within the Druze community that was triggered June 30 in the village of Qabrshmoun when the entourage of Druze minister Saleh Gharib was attacked, reportedly by Jumblatt loyalists, while passing through Mount Lebanon.
Two of Gharib’s bodyguards were killed, causing an uproar in the Democratic Party to which he belongs and which is headed by Arslan. To avoid a confrontation between the Druze ministers, Hariri refused to call his cabinet into session for more than one month.
One day after the Baabda rapprochement, however, the Hariri cabinet convened and Aoun had a one-on-one with Gharib, who agreed to drop mention of the Qabrshmoun incident and let the Lebanese justice system handle it. He had previously insisted the incident was a targeted assassination against him personally, carried out at Jumblatt’s orders.
In theory, all sides seem to have downplayed their escalation after Qabrshmoun. Arslan had originally fumed “this will not pass,” threatening to take up arms to protect his followers should the state fail to do so. He resorted to none of that, however, agreeing to attend the reconciliation meeting with no preconditions.
Arslan, who enjoys excellent relations with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, had insisted on the case being referred to a judicial council, headed by Justice Minister Albert Sarhan, a member of the Hezbollah-affiliated Free Patriotic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Jumblatt’s allies — never on good terms with the Aounists — argued that such a council would not be impartial, demanding instead referral to the Internal Security Forces, which are allied with Hariri.
Jumblatt threatened that his two ministers would boycott any cabinet meeting and even resign from their posts should the case be referred to the Aounist judicial council. He controls the education and industry portfolios.
A Jumblatt walkout on the Hariri government would bring it down automatically, jeopardising the entire state. Jumblatt insisted he has given his share of concessions to the present administration, by relinquishing one of his three cabinet seats to Arslan’s party, which went to Gharib as Refugee Affairs minister.
It has been decided that the Lebanese justice system will handle the case and that any verdict would be referred to the cabinet of ministers.
Hariri took a surprisingly neutral stance throughout the conflict, fearing for his government and the delicate balance that it managed to achieve last January. Aoun was less diplomatic, however, having originally toyed with the idea of imposing a judicial council tailor-made to his liking and that of Arslan, regardless of what the Jumblatt camp thought about it.
Jumblatt agreed to let his partisans stand before court, as witnesses only, however, rather than “suspects,” insisting they were innocent of what happened in Qabrshmoun.
Speeding up the rapprochement for all sides was a high-tone statement from the US Embassy in Beirut calling for an “independent” and “un-politicised” judicial process, which many Lebanese read as a call in favour of Jumblatt.
The veteran Druze leader, who has been at the apex of Lebanese politics since the late 1970s, has walked a fine line between his position on Syrian tutelage in Lebanon and his cordial relations with Hezbollah. That, too, facilitated the rapprochement and gave Berri wide room to manoeuvre.
Jumblatt had insisted that a representative from Hezbollah attend the Baabda rapprochement, hoping to make the deal as cohesive as possible and make space for common ground with Hezbollah.
Although its officials refused to attend the meeting, claiming they were not directly involved in the Qabrshmoun conflict, Hezbollah blessed the agreement and is toying with a broader rapprochement with Jumblatt, through arranging a meeting between some of their senior officials and members of Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.
Now that the ranking politicians have been accommodated and brought together for one souvenir photo at Baabda Palace, Lebanese citizens are asking what the highly polarised Lebanese system had done to prevent the reoccurrence of such a bloody incident and where it leaves the families of the two victims killed at Qabrshmoun.
Coinciding with the photo at Baabda, another photograph went viral on social media — the daughter of one of the bodyguards killed kissing a poster of her dead father. Underneath was the caption: “It’s over, Papa. They have reconciled — Yalla, come back!”