The Lebanese cabinet dodged a bullet on November 10th by postponing a vote about witnesses who allegedly gave investigators false information on the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The issue has been dominating Lebanese politics amid fears that it could spark an internal conflict similar to that of 2008, when Hezbollah and its supporters took over the streets of Beirut.
The special tribunal for Lebanon (STL), set up to try those suspected of involvement in Hariri's assassination, is supported by western governments but Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement, has condemned it as "biased". Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has warned against attempts to "discredit" the tribunal, while William Hague, the British foreign secretary, announced a further £1m funding in support for the tribunal and declared that "justice is the only way to ensure stability in Lebanon".
But justice at what cost? The tribunal is testing the limits of Lebanon's government consensus. Prior to the fudged cabinet session, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea warned: "If having to choose between the STL and the cabinet, then it is better not to have a cabinet."
It has been just over a year since Saad Hariri -- son of the assassinated leader -- formed a national unity government after five months of wrangling. During that time the pro-western March 14 alliance has steadily moved towards building bridges with the March 8 opposition and its Syrian allies, most spectacularly with Walid Jumblatt performing a classic volte-face and reaching out to Damascus.
But the UN investigation into the Hariri killing has a mandate and momentum of its own and recent reports suggest the court will move to indict members of Hezbollah before the end of the year.
The tribunal was originally created when the UN realised that Lebanon had neither the capacity nor commitment to do the job itself. Established in 2007 under UN security council resolution 1757, the tribunal overrode Lebanese constitutional procedures and, as a Chatham House report explained, provided a potential solution "for an impossible political situation and laid a claim for the rule of law to prevail over violence".
Over the past five years the UN investigation has also become a tool of political pressure against Syria, whose troops were forced to leave Lebanon following the 2005 assassination. Later that year the UN international independent investigation commission, led by Detlev Mehlis, issued a report saying that "given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge".
The predicted indictment of Hezbollah members would suggest that they are suspected of killing Hariri at the behest of their Syrian allies. In response, the Syrians have regularly looked to discredit the investigation as biased, with a senior Syrian diplomat telling me that its enemies were using the tribunal as "a game" against it.
If it is a game then Syria still has cards to play and none more powerful than its alliance with Hezbollah. A senior Hezbollah official warned that "such an indictment is a warning bell equivalent to lighting the fuse, to igniting the wick for an explosion, and is dangerous for Lebanon".
The day after the cabinet decision was delayed, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that the group would "cut off the hand" of anyone who attempted to arrest its members, while the Lebanese daily, al-Akhbar, reported that within two hours of any indictment, Hezbollah would react and "hold a security and military grip on large areas of Lebanon".
Over the past two months, Saad Hariri has reached out to Nasrallah with the option of blaming "rogue" elements of Hezbollah -- a suggestion that was immediately rejected. Steadily the political positions towards the tribunal are solidifying and the space for compromise is disappearing.
Ultimately, all involved in Lebanon will have to answer the question: will solving the murder of Hariri unite or divide the country? Postponing the cabinet vote is a delaying tactic born of indecision about which decision to make. However, the political elite are running out of time as the schedule for the next confrontational cabinet session is at the end of the month.
There can be little doubt that assassins revel in an absence of accountability -- and in Lebanon's history few of them have ever been brought to justice. Any indictment could lead to turmoil, but if the political system does prove capable of handling the consequences, it could signal an end to the culture of impunity regarding political killings and mark a significant moment in the country's development.