Beirut's long walk to the Middle East Canossa

Even if Lebanese PM Saad Hariri is unable to stand up to the architects and perpetrators of his father’s murder, the international community must pursue justice for the slain leader.

In 1077, King Heinrich IV came to the gates of the fortified Canossa castle in northern Tuscany, Italy. He was there to request forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII, who was in the area on a stopover while on his way to Germany.

 In the preceding four years, a confrontation had developed between the king and the pope surrounding the issue of who held authority over religious affairs. The excommunication that the pope had issued against the king put his reign in danger. The king’s last option to save his crown was to surrender unconditionally.

The king, barefoot and dressed in simple peasant clothing, knelt at the foot of the castle gates, and waited three days in the snow until the pope acquiesced to his pleas and agreed to forgive him for his denial of the church’s supremacy.

Since then, the expression “the walk to Canossa” has entered into the universal historical lexicon as the ultimate act of submission and self-humiliation.

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, is very close to making the “walk to the Middle East Canossa” – that is, to Damascus. After the murder of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in February of 2005, he adopted his father’s vision of an independent Lebanon, and struggled valiantly against the Syrian and Iranian influence in his country. He leveled harsh criticism against Hizbullah and called for it to be disarmed. He led a pro-western coalition, “the forces of March 14” (the date when a huge anti-Syria demonstration was held in Beirut), to an impressive victory in the 2009 elections.

Despite the fact that the balance of forces in the parliament necessitated Hariri to form a unity government that included supporters of Syria and Iran, there was hope that the young leader, who enjoyed widespread international and Arab support, would manage to bring Lebanon into a future of moderation and stability.

It seemed as though finally, after decades in which Lebanese politics mainly produced prime ministers who focused principally on developing their private business interests and on their personal survival, a leader with real backbone had emerged in this unfortunate country. A leader who would rebuff all efforts to enslave his country to foreign interests.

The moment of truth for Hariri and Lebanon was destined to be the publication of the conclusions of the special UN tribunal examining his father’s assassination.

Ever since that brutal murder, carried out by an experienced terrorist cell in the heart of Beirut, Hariri had been committed to a transparent international investigation which would bring those responsible to justice.

In recent months, there have been growing indications that Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare would soon publish his conclusions and submit indictments to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that has been established in the Hague. This development, which may well take place this very month, was supposed to represent the summit of the young Hariri’s achievements.

Here – despite the many years that had passed, despite the slow progress of the investigation and the many changes in its leading personnel, despite the repeated efforts of those responsible for the crime to incite against, skew and cheat the inquiry – justice would both be done and be seen to be done.

Except that Lebanon’s volatile reality – in which today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy, and this morning’s ally is this evening’s betrayer – has imposed itself on Hariri too.

THE CRUDE threats of Syria’s president and Hizbullah’s leader have silenced even the man who until recently saw them, apparently with justification, as the architects and perpetrators of the despicable execution of his father.

Hariri, aware of the fragility of his camp of supporters and the ruthlessness of his enemies, blinked first. He chose to shamelessly court Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, assured them that he would put the past behind him, publicly apologized for raising unfounded allegations against Syria, and swore to change his defiant ways.

Saad Hariri’s fears are a matter for himself, his family and his people. The free world has no say in them. The international community must stick with the course that it has laid out: bringing the murderers of an elected national leader to justice, even if his son has deviated from the path and is refusing to proceed toward that goal.

And I am convinced that this is precisely what will happen.

Nobody can now prevent the issuing of indictments – not Assad, not Nasrallah, and not even the Lebanese government.

Even if Lebanon refuses to carry out arrest warrants for the accused and even if the accused flee from justice, the determination of the international community has immense significance.

It will place the Hizbullah leadership where it belongs, exposed as a ruthless gang of cold-blooded killers. It will make it difficult for this organization to attain the status it seeks in Lebanon and in the international diplomatic field as a legitimate political force.

And most importantly, it will make clear to fanatical, unrestrained leaders around the world that even that cynical organization, so full of hypocrisy, the United Nations, is able to find within itself the necessary strength to settle these kinds of scores.