Across the Bay

Monday, April 04, 2005

Hizbullah Items

My apologies for the long absence, but I've been, and continue to be, swamped with work.

Here are a few items from last week on Hizbullah that might be of interest.

First, Michael Young's op-ed. Michael, who thinks that disarming Hizbullah is no longer "a question of whether, but of when" is advising Hizbullah to dialogue directly with the Christians, as opposed to making inflammatory suggestions on Al-Manar (I've mentioned Nasrallah's nasty interview a while back). Michael notes the previous collaboration between Aounists and Hizbullah, and that might be tried again as this Naharnet piece suggests, quoting Aoun:

The general also said he would possibly "meet with Hizbullah" after his return and possibly conclude an election pact with Party of God leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

But beyond tactical talks, it behooves Hizbullah to start an honest reconciliation with the rest of Lebanon, and stop playing the game of double-talk: claiming an above the fray nationalist stature, while simultaneously playing a specifically Shiite card (with all the elements of the Lebanese Shiite narrative). No one is buying it anymore. I'll touch on this in an upcoming post, but for now, see Hazem Saghieh's scathing remarks in this al-Hayat piece (Arabic).

Perhaps Nasrallah's latest painfully obvious attempt at machismo, supports Michael's reading of the inevitability of Hizbullah's disarmament. Nasrallah is famous for this rhetoric, especially when everyone knows the outcome! It's a bid to score a cheap point, for free! The thing is that this is so tired and obvious, I don't know who he thinks he's kidding, except for those in the Shiite community who actually believe this kind of rhetoric.

In a sense, after seeing the writing on the wall, and perhaps signaling a readiness to disarm provided with some face saving measure of the Shebaa Farms, it was to be expected that he will highten the "defiant" rhetoric, to try to sell the "tough" and "resiliant" image, of the Party not bowing to American pressure. At this stage, the Lebanese attitude is "whatever, as long as you'll eventually disarm!"

To those who misread Jumblat's statements after meeting with Nasrallah (see my previous post), Michael had this to say:

The real explanation is that the Syrians are reportedly to complete a full withdrawal within the next two weeks. If the information is true, the short deadline imposes on Jumblatt and the opposition, but also on Nasrallah, agreement on a number of fundamentals. If we are to understand Jumblatt's remarks properly, he reassured Hizbullah that its interests would not swiftly collapse with the Syrian order in Lebanon. He also probably sought to see what Nasrallah's intentions were now that the Syrians are departing. In that context, it's also time for the party's traditional adversaries in the Christian community to echo the assurances of the Druze leader, but also make their own deep worries known to Nasrallah.

But beyond local realities and immediate regional ones (the Syrian withdrawal), the Iranian element should also be considered. This is addressed in this Al-Ahram piece, which thinks that Hizbullah ultimately won't be able to rely on Tehran. The Iranian issue is very complex, and I frankly don't know how that might play out.

Michael Herzog wrote the following analysis for WINEP. Herzog is correct in seeing Hizbullah's vulnerability in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal, but I disagree with much of his analysis. I think ultimately, it's coming from a narrow perspective prevalent in some quarters in Israel that once the Syrians withdraw, Hizbullah would or "could further provoke Israel free of Syria’s restraining hand." I don't think that will happen. The only thing I'm still unsure about, with regard to military operations, is whether Hizbullah's insistance on the Shebaa Farms card might be an excuse to carry on limited minor operations in that area. However, like Farid el-Khazen recently noted, " Hizbullah's stand has little support and the party's popularity outside its Shiite base has continued to decline since the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000." Also, the growing resentment among Palestinians will further curb Hizbullah's meddling in their affairs, as Mahmoud Abbas moves to implement a truce and disarm the militants. If he succeeds, the pressure will grow even more on Hizbullah to disarm. The only remaining excuse would be the Golan, and I doubt that that issue would be resolved other than through negotiations. Just like Syria's regional card has been severely diminished, so has Hizbullah's (although, tragic decisions can never be ruled out).

Finally, Ali Abdallah lays out what he thinks is the proper course of action for Hizbullah:

By getting involved in the internal struggle on the side of the loyalists and putting its popular and military capabilities at the service of the Syrian equation in Lebanon will make the execution of Resolution 1559 and its coupling with the Taif Accord, namely the disarming the resistance/Hizbullah, as Larsen and some Arab countries have done, a universal demand. The adoption of the Taif Accord as a blueprint for solving the current political situation will not remove the danger hanging over Hizbullah's head, but can give it enough time to effect the necessary move to the post liberation and post Syrian period in Lebanon - especially in view of the many Israeli messages to the effect that it is ready to evacuate the Shebaa Farms if the Lebanese army deploys there, which if it happens, will completely close the circle around the Movement.

The opposition's insistence on the implementation of the Taif Accord is a message of appreciation and friendship towards Hizbullah, which the latter should seize upon and quickly dissociate itself from the internal struggle, accelerate the implementation the Taif Accord, take part in the upcoming general election which aims at formulating a new national equation based on sovereignty and independence, and transform itself accordingly into a Lebanese political party.

Jumblat's meeting should be seen in that light. The next step for the Party is, as Michael said, to hold real talks with the rest of the Lebanese, as the latter are, now more than ever, its only viable option.

Update: I'm glad to see Rich is back! He shared his thoughts, and as it happens, my view, on Hizbullah. His post nails it (don't forget to read his comment in the comments section as well):

Is your movement backed into a corner? Are you smarting from pressure from local and international opposition? Are you seeing the guarantor of the status quo in your neighborhood sneaking out the back door under pressure from within the country? Well, if you are, then it must be time to make some new allies, and Nasrallah seems to be trying to do this.

First and foremost, we must consider that Hizbullah's statements weeks ago about safeguarding national unity and sovereignty in Lebanon, as I fully expected, were completely meaningless. Hizbullah is not a Lebanese national movement, after all – it is a resistance movement that defines itself based on its religious foundations and on its antipathy toward Israel. It began as an attempt to export the 1979 Iranian revolution abroad, and it still maintains at its core a pro-Iran and pro-Shiite religious and political orientation. Hizbullah is concerned primarily with itself, and it has hardly wavered from its standard line of contempt for the multifarious nature of Lebanese political life. It would like nothing more than to continue to be able to do what it has been doing all along - to aggrandize itself at the expense of diminished prospects for long-term Lebanese stability. That said, with Nasrallah feeling a bit isolated now under the specter of a complete Syrian withdrawal, Hizbullah possibly stands to lose many of the gains it made within the Lebanese state under the post-civil-war order in Lebanon. Aligning themselves with Palestinian groups, namely those in the camps in Lebanon, makes quite a bit of sense under these circumstances. The Palestinians of these camps - who are politically isolated, armed, organized, radicalized, and basically deprived of any legal rights under the Lebanese state - were used for years as a bargaining chip by Syria with which to influence the Lebanese state; Nasrallah may find the same utility in them as well. Rest assured that whatever Nasrallah finds in them, it is for Hizbullah's reasons alone – not for the good of Lebanon, and certainly not for the Palestinians.

This is from his comment:

Hizbullah is trying to divide the opposition - because if it does not, Hizbullah itself may splinter and weaken in the process. The clock is ticking, and Nasrallah knows that he cannot keep up this marathon dance that he started doing on March 8.

The essence of Hizbullah's position since March 8 has been defensive - a position they established as soon as they decided to come out and claim that they were fighting for Lebanese sovereignty. The natural response of incredulous Lebanese would be to say "prove it." In this light, subsequent events, namely the massive opposition demonstration soon thereafter, pretty much sent Hizbullah back to the drawing board. Not only would it have to find a way to demonstrate that it represents more than a quisling plurality (if even that) within the electorate, but it would need to find ways to shake up the opposition and divide it against itself. Not easy under the circumstances.

Hence all the finger-pointing about traitors and collaborators within the opposition, while simulataneously seeking allies within the very groups that strike fear in the hearts of Lebanese government members (Palestinian militant groups). I take this to mean that Hizbullah is near desperation - the center of the Lebanese polity is holding, and it is doing so without Hizbullah's sponsorship. Methinks Nasrallah doth protest too much, actually; he has shown us what we all should have been able to expect upon hearing his speech on March 8. Lots of threats, that is.

It's quite pathetic when the only ones who will cheer you on are the rejectionist factions in the Palestinian camps. The thing is, the Palestinians in the territories have had it with Hizbullah. So just like the skirmishes in the Shebaa Farms didn't sell, this won't either. It's meaningless. Instead of spending the energy where it counts, it's being spent on empty rhetoric to an irrelevant audience. But then again, that has been Hizbullah's calling card, especially as it turned to a form of Islamic Pan-Arabism (Nasrallah as Nasser).

This is all in a bid to maintain regional relevance when everyone is pressuring them to dump it. The problem is that they have built their internal power on that regional role. That's why Nasrallah needs to up the fiery rhetoric. But the louder it gets, the more meaningless it is, and more importantly, the more painfully obvious it is.

Update 2: This report in Haaretz may explain Hizbullah's recent excessive rhetoric and its Palestinian context as outlined by Rich:

Over the past few weeks, Hezbollah has eased the pressure it had been placing on Palestinian terror organizations to carry out attacks on Israelis, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer said on Tuesday.

The IDF believes the decline in Palestinian violence will continue through the implementation of the disengagement plan.

The senior officer said the current period of relative calm serves the interests of most of the Palestinian players and added that he does not expect an outburst of violence before the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, which is scheduled to begin in July.

The IDF attributes the change in Hezbollah's position to the group's internal politics in Lebanon in light of the call to withdraw Syrian military forces from the country.

The Palestinians have shown their resentment of Hizbullah and Syrian meddling in their affairs, and it was most evident after the recent Tel Aviv attack, which the Palestinians attributed to Hizbullah, while Israel traced it to Islamic Jihad in Damascus. The Haaretz piece also notes that the Syrians have also issued directions to IJ forbidding them from launching attacks.

So Hizbullah is upping the rhetoric as its actual activity is being curtailed due to internal and international pressure.