A Very Bad Sign
These are the old bankrupt games whose results are well-known. Let's continue to indulge Hassan Nasrallah's fantasies, and his blackmail of the rest of the Lebanese and holding them hostage to safeguard his own narrow interests. Now let's see how the people that really matter, those who hold our financial future in their hands, will respond to this masturbatory, yet all-too predictable, move.
Update: I wonder if the move is related in any way to this report I found in Al-Seyassah (PDF, Arabic. Starts here, bottom left, continued here, also bottom left). It claims that Annan is optimistic that UNR 1559 will be implemented in stages, and that the Lebanese Army will be sent to the south after the formation of the new cabinet. This will be done in conjunction with Hizbullah, and will not affect the Party's deployment in the south or the working arrangement under which they have been operating. If the report is true, then this could be either a show of force and escalation ahead of the disengagement from Gaza (see comments), or a reminder that they will still be able to operate regardless of the presence of the Army.
Update 2: More details from Haaretz (hat tip, Avi. See comments).
Update 3: As always, Jonathan Edelstein has an insightful analysis of this latest move (also see comments). Jonathan ties it to the Aoun-Hariri rapprochement, among other things. His view is shared by this JPost report:
Hizbullah might also be concerned with the agreement reached on Wednesday between Saad Hariri, son of late prime minister Rafik Hariri, and Christian leader Gen. Michel Aoun, who only recently returned to Lebanon after 15 years in exile for fighting against the Syrians. The reported alliance between the two would give the anti-Syria groups a strong and stable parliamentary majority without the need for Hizbullah's MPs.
Also, in an earlier comment to one of Jonthan's posts, I raised the possibility of the impact of the election of Ahmadinejad, which was seen by Hizbullah as a great relief especially after Rafsanjani hinted at the eventual disarmament of Hizbullah, which left them quite nervous. Though I agree with Jonathan that all such matters are in the hands of Khamenei and not any president, this is one of the things I had in mind when I referred to recent developments emboldening Hizbullah in my comments below. Gabriel Ben-Dor, quoted in that JPost article also shares this view:
"In the midst of all these changes, the results of the presidential elections in Iran could not have come at a better time for Hizbullah, after the setbacks vis-a-vis the Syrian withdrawal and the outcome of the Lebanese elections," Ben-Dor said.
"Hizbullah is also determined to try to subvert the disengagement process that, if it goes ahead successfully, could lead to a relaxing of tension in the region generally, which would make Hizbullah less important and far less relevant."
Update 4: Michael Young weighs in:
The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran will have pleased Hizbullah - no less happy, surely, with seeing the back of Mohammad Khatami's turban. For the moment, the party knows its anchors in Tehran have been reinforced (perhaps prompting its attack in the Shebaa Farms yesterday), since the new president has no beef with Hizbullah's paramount Iranian sponsor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, to presume so linear an advantage would be a mistake: the Ahmadinejad victory, together with the speed bumps ahead in Lebanon, suggests Hizbullah is in for a period of turbulence.
First, Iran. There is no doubt that for now Hizbullah has bought some serenity - not that it was greatly troubled before Ahmadinejad's victory. However, with hard-liners in control of all the major Iranian power centers, Hizbullah may paradoxically have to guard against finding all its eggs in one basket, in anticipation of the conservative order eventually breaking down. Moreover, whereas the previous divisions in the Iranian political-religious hierarchy encouraged a more nuanced Western approach to the nuclear issue, the current setup may undermine that, by extension prompting less international flexibility on Hizbullah's disarmament.
Politically, Hizbullah has gained in recent weeks. It reaffirmed its authority in the South and the northern Bekaa (though it did so by backing, with others, an election law eradicating all independent rivals), and is now owed much by Walid Jumblatt, who averted a cataclysm in the Baabda-Aley district thanks to Hizbullah's votes. The party has even managed to convince its more gullible cheerleaders that the successes were a referendum in favor of Hizbullah's pursuing the armed struggle - conveniently ignoring the limited geographical scope of that endorsement, and the reprehensible gerrymandering that made it possible.
Its short-term achievements aside, Hizbullah is today seeking to ward off military menopause because it knows that without the armed struggle it loses its reason for existing. Hizbullah faces three dilemmas today, all of them exacerbated, oddly enough, by its triumph against Israel in southern Lebanon in May 2000; and unless the party can revamp itself, it will continue to descend deeper into a situation it controls less and less.
Michael seems to share my "Hizbullah-becoming-another-Amal" scnenario:
A second dilemma affects Hizbullah in its domestic context. The leaders of the party believe their appeal is the fruit of militancy, commitment and effectiveness. It certainly is to an extent, but while Hizbullah regards patronage as something inferior, cheap, it is mainly the assistance networks the party has set up and the ability to play the state bureaucracy as well as anyone that have allowed it to purchase long-term loyalty. In other words, devoid of patronage, Hizbullah is diminished vis-a-vis its electorate; with it, the party feels diminished in its self-image.
Hizbullah's third dilemma is ideological. In 1992, the party resolved an ideological ambiguity when it agreed to participate in parliamentary elections - suspending its opposition to the Lebanese state as a substitute for an Islamic Republic. The decision, taken by Nasrallah, was pragmatic, and today is considered by the party faithful as seminal. Indeed, Hizbullah often comes across as a secular organization, with Nasrallah speaking little about God. Yet if Hizbullah accepts a secular order, of what importance is its religious core down the road? The party is left with two choices: to either go back to being a Shiite religious party, which would limit its horizons and lose it much appeal in the sectarian Lebanese context; or to become another Shiite secular party, like Amal, which would undercut its revolutionary Žlan, turning it mainly into a dispenser of favors.
The way to avoid these dilemmas, Hizbullah feels, is to pursue the armed struggle, to keep succeeding, and to hope for the best. Circumstances change with time, and if the party can keep on course - retaining its weapons in the interim - things may turn to its advantage, particularly in facing UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Already, Ahmadinejad's election victory must have been interpreted by the party as a sign of improving fortunes; the agreement by Lebanon's Parliament to re-elect Nabih Berri as speaker was another such example, even if Nasrallah legitimately considers himself the kingmaker in that relationship.
Michael's note on deconfessionalization may have been why Jumblat (link above) included the formation of a committee to discuss that prospect, as stipulated by the Taef, as a requirement for the new cabinet. But besides Michael's note on allowing other Shiite voices to emerge, this is all variable (see comments). Setting up a committee doesn't mean abolishing the system any time soon. No one will accept that, first on the list is Jumblat himself! In fact, if indeed the condition is the disarmament of the party, and the rise of various Shiite rivals, and if this happens in conjunction with the diminishing of their patronage network due to state authority being spread to the south and the Bekaa and through investment and devlopment, then deconfessionalization would actually be a bad deal for Hizbullah. They would risk becoming not just another Amal with Islamist baggage, but, as Jonathan Edelstein put it (see comments): a "permanent minority party." The 2000 law probably allowed Hizbullah to get its peak representation in Parliament. The political context in Lebanon is inherently variable, and I just don't think all these attempts to secure an overblown size through blackmail will actually bring about what Hizbullah desires, which is why they will continue to hold on to their weapons as their only constant (I certainly don't buy the notion that they're holding on to their weapons in order to secure a larger piece of the pie for all Shiites. That contradicts their crushing of all other Shiite voices through the 2000 law. They have their own narrow intersts in mind, period.) Michael's questioning of the extent of their representation among Shiites is also apt. That's why I'm not sure if I fully agree with Michael on Nasrallah as kingmaker in the relationship with Berri. Yes, Berri needed their backing, but they need his protection. If they were so confidant they could win (as their groupies believe), why didn't they run alone and takeover his seats and secure a much larger share of seats, without having to be indebted to anyone, or relying on anyone?
As Michael concluded: "Hizbullah's future will be uncertain for as long as the party cannot define a peaceful role for itself in an exclusively Lebanese context. Sectarian politics, to work, need to be modest; it's Hizbullah's turn to show it agrees."