With Eyes on Israel, Biden Ignores Judicial Crisis in Neighboring Lebanon
Washington has a vested interest in justice for the American victims of the blast and in spurring an overhaul of Lebanon’s broken political system.
If President Joe Biden is worried about the implications of judicial reform in the Jewish state, with its long traditions of civil debate and compromise, he should be much more concerned about Lebanon, where a U.S.-designated terrorist organization has already eviscerated the rule of law.
Talking to reporters this week, Biden implored Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to compromise on his proposals for overhauling the Israeli judiciary, lest he plunges his country into enduring chaos. Biden and his top advisers have exerted continual pressure on Netanyahu’s government regarding the judicial overhaul, even though it is a matter of Israeli domestic politics.
Meanwhile, enduring chaos has already arrived in next-door Lebanon, where a Hezbollah-aligned government continually subverts the rule of law and the prerogatives of the judiciary. The country has been leaderless since October, unable to elect a president. The response from Washington? A few pieties about democracy, but mostly a shrug.
Israel is a close ally, of course, while Lebanon is a nominal friend that soaks up billions of dollars of U.S. aid but is often more responsive to Tehran than Washington.
Hezbollah, bankrolled by Tehran, dominates Lebanon’s political order, propping up its members and allies in virtually every state institution, as it has for the past fifteen years. There are regular elections, but Hezbollah’s guns, its monopolization (with its partner Amal) of Shiite representation, and its overall primacy, give it veto power. Stabilizing—let alone rebuilding—the economy has proven to be far beyond the terror group’s capabilities, although it does engage in continuous obstruction of the judicial system.
The investigation into the Beirut Port explosion is a case in point.
In August 2020, Lebanon was rocked (quite literally) by a massive explosion at the Port of Beirut. Some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been unsafely stored at the port for years detonated, sending a mushroom cloud over Beirut. More than 200 people died, including multiple American citizens, thousands were injured, and hundreds of thousands were rendered homeless.
Public records indicate that Lebanese officials were aware of the dangers posed by the chemicals at the port and failed to act accordingly. As early as 2014, the head of Beirut port received notice that ammonium nitrate is “extremely hazardous” and “requires taking due diligence and precaution” to store.
The Lebanese people, the U.S. government, and the international community have called for accountability and justice, but so far neither has been served. In February, a British court held liable a London-based company that delivered the chemicals, but Lebanese officials continue to enjoy de facto immunity.
Days after the explosion, Lebanon’s High Judicial Council appointed Judge Fadi Sawan to spearhead an investigation. But mere months into his probe, Sawan was removed from the case, apparently at the request of two ex-ministers Sawan had charged with criminal negligence.
Sawan’s successor, Tarek Bitar, was forced to suspend his investigation four times between February and December 2021 due to legal challenges raised by Hezbollah and its allies. At one point, Hezbollah’s campaign to remove Bitar turned deadly; armed clashes broke out between rival parties at a Hezbollah-Amal protest in Beirut, leaving six dead.
The latest twist came in January when Bitar unexpectedly reopened his investigation and levied charges against several former ministers, including Lebanon’s top prosecutor, Ghassan Oweidat. Oweidat proceeded to file counter-charges against Bitar, impose a travel ban on the judge, and order the release of all suspects detained in connection with the case—including a U.S. national who immediately returned to the United States, circumventing travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, American officials continue to urge Lebanese officials to conduct a “swift and transparent investigation,” despite clear indications that the Hezbollah-led order will not allow it.
All of this internal jockeying has yielded little change in U.S. policy. The United States remains committed to underwriting the status quo, placing misguided trust in Lebanon’s civil institutions. Look no further than the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which was released last week: the 46-page report includes one paragraph on the Port investigation and fails to acknowledge Hezbollah’s intimidation tactics altogether.
It is time Washington mustered an appetite for tougher action.
In December, Senators Robert Menendez and James Risch wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen petitioning the administration to implement “a more forward-leaning policy.” Citing Hezbollah’s “attempts to derail basic state functions,” including “the constant delaying actions targeting investigations,” Menendez and Risch proposed sanctioning a “spectrum” of Lebanese political leaders in tandem with our European allies.
There is little point in waiting any longer for Lebanon to implement critical reforms. Washington has a vested interest in justice for the American victims of the blast and in spurring an overhaul of Lebanon’s broken political system. Imposing sanctions in concert with our European allies would help marginalize the corrupt and malign actors who are preventing a credible investigation of the port explosion and, more broadly, killing any hope of reform. The Biden administration should refocus its efforts on a country that actually needs help.
Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.