Across the Bay

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Hizbullah Maneuvers

A couple of days ago, my compadres (in more ways than one) over at the Lebanese Bloggers wondered whether there was a shift in Nasrallah's rhetoric that points to a possible slow shift in policy:

Sayyid Nasrallah's speech today in the Bekaa was very different than his other speeches. He addressed the crowds by letting them know that Hizbullah's role as a party must change; that the party must be engaged in Lebanese politics and affairs. He also called for the implementation of the Taif Accord. (And two days ago he even talked of Bashir Gemayyil's 10,452 km2.) This was new rhetoric to my ears; well new as compared to what has been said and done prior to last Sunday at the eve of the elections in the South. Sayyid Nasrallah is breaking it slowly to the Hizbullah crowds the new reality that his party will be facing. What does this new language mean? Why the quick shift?

Doha, who wrote the post, didn't offer an answer to her questions at the end. So what is Nasrallah doing? Is this linked to a possible shift in positions on the weapons issue? I don't quite believe that. I found the following articles helpful in trying to make sense of Nasrallah's latest rhetorical acrobatics.

The first one, chronologically, is Nicholas Nasif's in An-Nahar.

Nasif read Nasrallah's use of Gemayyel's slogan as a sign of further intransigence, not openness. He also, correctly, tied it to the electoral alliances, especially after the telling break in the Beirut elections on the part of Hizbullah, many of whose voters broke from Hariri's list and backed one of his rivals. That episode (which by now I'm leaning towards believing was intentional to send a message) deeply disturbed Jumblat and Hariri, and they intensified their meetings with Nasrallah in order to prevent its reoccurence in the far more crucial Baabda-Alley elections.

The intl' community will refuse to reengage in this useless conversation regarding the Seven Villages which are well documented as Palestinian lands, following the partition in 1948, and they then became Israeli lands. At any rate, they're not Lebanese so that they could be reclaimed. This is the same argument of the intl' organization regarding the Shebaa Farms which it considers Syrian until the Lebanese government proves, with documents, that it isn't.

But Nasrallah neglected a 100% Lebanese village in Syria's hold, the village of Nekhayleh, the hometown of a former Lebanese PM, Khaled Shehab, which Syria took from the Lebanese state and told the government not to hold on to it when the "Blue Line" was drawn in 2000. Syria, it's been told, has also asked Hizbullah not to mention it.
Away from the current debate, or the one to come, regarding the fate of Hizbullah's weapons, there is information that it might, in the next phase, tie it to the weapons of the Palestinian camps, in what could be seen as a new explosive maneuver both internally and externally, and one that Nasrallah had hinted at.

Therefore, tying the slogan of full sovereignty, launched by Bashir Gemayyel, with the Seven Villages reflects, at minimum, a pessimistic outlook by Nasrallah to the inter-Lebanese dialogue on Hizbullah's weapons. It's as if he doesn't want there to be a dialogue.

That last part is certainly true. While talking about dialogue, Hizbullah has basically lifted the main issue (the weapons) from the table! So it's a non-starter.

Nasif continues:

A bigshot politician indirectly described the post-election phase as awkward and embarrassing for everyone, inside the new government and outside it, because there are heavy leftover files that are waiting, among which, beside the security issue, is the issue of the weapons of Hizbullah and the camps, and the Syrian-Lebanese relations, and the economy. He reckoned that it would be difficult to embark on internal reform due to out of control spending amidst scandals that have turned state institutions into hospitals and social security and aide funds and managements that spend on 7 million people in a country of 4 million.

This last part is linked to the Syrian patronage, but also to the nepotism of people like Nabih Berri, who perhaps is the most notorious abuser of state funds. But he's certainly not alone. These are the files that everyone believes Emile Lahoud will make public should he feel threatened.

Nasif concludes that while the French and the Americans will not be split on the Lebanon file, there might be disagreements on how they approach Hizbullah's weapons, even if they both agree that the Party should be disarmed:

The French believe Hizbullah's weapons are a ticking time-bomb threatening domestic stability, and should be diffused with care. However, such a position would naturally lead to more intransigence on Hizbullah's part as long as it's confident that no one could impose on it the implementing of the Resolution, either by force or for free.

The last part is certainly true, which is why Nasrallah feels comfortable threatening people (although some have tied his revelation of holding 12,000 missiles to Syria's flexing of muscles, and broader regional politics), and which is why he made those comments about the Lebanese Army (see below).

But I'm not sure there's that much difference of opinion between the French and US, even if one follows Nasif's logic. Indeed, even Bidermann (see right below) writes:

Lebanese and Syrian supporters of Hezbollah hope that the Europeans, who have not put Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations, will be less focused on disarming the group. But Western diplomats in Damascus say there is very little that divides the U.S. and the EU at the moment on 1559 and that there is little prospect that international pressure on Syria will ease.

The question remains one of mechanism. No one has the answer for that as of yet. But Nasif's reading of Nasrallah's recent maneuvers isn't optimistic.

The second, very good, analysis is by Walid Choucair in Al-Hayat, also two days ago. Choucair focuses much more on the electoral angle, and sees Nasrallah's speech mainly from that angle. However, he comes closest to Doha's view on "breaking it slowly" to Party loyalists. The question, however, is what "it" is. Choucair says "it" is only selling the alliance in Baabda-Alley with the Lebanese Forces, whom the PoG has demonized (until this very day, including during the recent anti-Syrian protests) as collaborators with Israel and untrustworthy traitors (see also the latest provocation in LF heartland of Ashrafieh).

Now all of a sudden, they're being asked to vote for Jumblat's list whole, and not repeat what they did with Hariri in Beirut. That means voting for LF candidates. Choucair points out that Nasrallah pushed for not having a direct member of the LF run on the list. The LF agreed and decided to run someone affiliated with them, but not one of their well-known figures. In fact, the Hariris also cooperated with the Hizbullah-Amal list in Sidon, managing to convince lots of Sunnis to vote, even when Bahia Hariri had already won. This was a gesture of goodwilll by the Hariris despite the unexplained break on Hizbullah's part in the Beirut elections. There are several reasons for this. For one, they hope this would keep a veneer of unity with Hizbullah, keeping their loyalty for the Baabda-Alley election. Also, it was keeping ties with Berri, who allowed Bahia Hariri on his list for the Sunni seat even when she will clearly back the Hariri bloc in Parliament. But he got to use her to prevent the appearence of an isolated, and low, sectarian Shiite vote (as most Christians boycotted, and Sunnis weren't at all interested in coming out to vote). The Hariris also want to keep ties with Berri in case he comes back as Speaker in a Parliament where they will have the largest bloc. Berri of course used that to his advantage, and so did Hizbullah, making it seem as if this was a referendum on the Party's weapons. It's obviously not that simple.

Choucair noted that the leadership of the Party wants to maintain the cooperation with the PSP, Future Bloc, and Amal in order to fend off the future challenges that will face it, "or else, each one will go their separate way." Considering that the Hariri-Jumblat blocs are likely to be the largest, or at any rate very influential, in Parliament -- and thus will be needed to maintain the veneer of national unity around Hizbullah -- it behooves Hizbullah to back them in Baabda-Alley and to order their followers not to break the list. Choucair said that the Party already backed pro-Syrian candidates (Hardan and the Baath's Qassem Hashem) in the South (even when the Hariris refused to vote for the SSNP candidate in the south), and Marwan Phares and Nader Sukkar in the northern Bekaa, so they will have more leeway (!) in Baabda-Alley. Or so Jumblat hopes. As Choucair notes, Jumblat was fearful that the PoG would cave in to Syrian pressure and vote for Talal Arslan or others on the Aoun-Arslan list (and that remains to be seen!). Choucair said that Jumblat himself was pressured to include Arslan on his list, but he refused.

Choucair sees the measured openness to the LF as part of the Party's awareness of its need to open up to all Lebanese parties in order to protect its weapons. He quoted an MP as saying that the Party's leadership is aware of the changes, so if the Syrian Baath is trying to find ways to change and reach out to America, and if the Iranian presidential candidate Rafsanjani is running on reopening dialogue with America, then the Party ought to realize the changes. As Nasrallah himself said, the cirucmstances in 2005 are different than what they were in 2000.

But notice that Nasrallah's reasons either way are completely tied to considerations to Syria and Iran. It has nothing to do with the internal scene. So when analysts make a leap to the domestic scene, I remain skeptical. The maneuver with the LF slogan is not meant as an opening up to the LF to protect the Party. The Party doesn't care about the Christians' say in this, as long as they can secure Hariri and Jumblat, i.e., the majority in Parliament. In fact, as Nasif's piece shows, even that, while desirable, is not certain to make a difference if it's not attained, as the mechanisms are still absent.

Nasrallah knows he can't rely on the LF to rally around the Party to protect its weapons. Nasrallah barely trusts Hariri, Jumblat and Berri (that's why the first two were afraid he would backstab them and vote for Aoun and try and break their majority in Parliament -- and that remains to be seen tomorrow)! Again, the more convincing arguments are its regional ties, more specifically Iran, and we have not seen any development on that end that would indicate a willingness to give up the weapons.

Finally, there's a good summary in Al-Hayat today. Abdallah Iskandar raises points not dissimilar to what I've raised here:

Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah declared that Hizbullah will integrate more and more in the political process, after adopting the late president Bashir Gemayyel's famous slogan about liberating the 10452 Km2, which is Lebanon's official area within its internationally recognized borders. This means that it will translate its current weight into a domestic role on the one hand, and submit to the conditions of this game, on the other. In that case, aside from the political formula aimed at keeping it as a military power independent of the state, this weapon will break the balance that's supposed to exist between the various parties.

If indeed a formula is reached where the weapons become subject to the state's authority, then the question will be the function of the Party which has justified its existence and continuity with armed resistance. The other question is about its concept of political action, as it is a fundamentalist Shiite party in a multicommunal country that cannot be ruled by one sect, let alone one party within one sect.

It all remains to be seen, but if people were thinking that this is about more than trying to keep the weapons (at all cost, even playing the most sectarian of cards), I think they got it wrong. You don't believe me? Read what Nawaf al-Musawi said.