Monday, July 31, 2006

Has Hezbollah overreached? (Michael Young)

At the moment, it looks as though Hezbollah is reaping massive political benefits from the Israeli/Lebanese crisis it provoked. The Lebanese journalist and political analyst Michael Young, opinion editor of the Lebanon Daily Star, argues that this is a temporary situation, and that once things settle down it will turn out that Hezbollah miscalculated dramatically. When the rest of the Lebanese political system has had a chance to catch its breath, there will be a massive backlash against it, which could include a significant segment of the Shiite community. However, this process will take a while to work itself out.

How much this proves to be wishful thinking remains to be seen. But Young is a perceptive and tough-minded analyst who is always worth taking seriously, and the fact that his analysis here (complemented by his Washington Post piece on July 25, "Break the Shiites Away from Hezbollah") runs counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom is one more reason for giving it some consideration.

To help put this analysis in context, it helps to be aware that Michael Young is a secular liberal from a Christian background, and Nabih Berri (mentioned in the title of his article) is the Speaker of the Lebanese parliament and long-time head of Amal, which is the other main Lebanese Shiite party besides Hezbollah.

--Jeff Weintraub
The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Thursday, July 27, 2006

Desperately waiting for Nabih Berri
By Michael Young

Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, waited until the early hours of Wednesday morning to inform us that the phase of bombing "beyond Haifa" had begun, even as he justified Hizbullah's actions as part of a national Lebanese effort - unlike his earlier claim to be fighting on behalf of the Arab and Muslim umma. This came only hours after another party official, Mahmoud Komati, stated that Hizbullah had been surprised by Israel's reaction to the capture of two soldiers on July 12.

Komati's admission was troubling for four reasons. It was probably untrue, since Hizbullah almost certainly factored in what the Israelis might do when it planned the soldiers' abduction; the admission was designed to shift blame away from Hizbullah, since if it had known about the Israeli response, hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese would hold the party accountable for their fate; and if Komati was telling the truth and Hizbullah did not know, then the party is guilty of having provoked a national catastrophe based on deficient planning.

The fourth reason was more prosaic: It was contradicted by what Nasrallah later said. In his statement on Al-Manar, the secretary general declared that Hizbullah knew Israel intended to launch a major military operation in October. In that case it was surely aware that the Olmert government might engage in harsh retaliation before that deadline. And if that wasn't plain enough, the muscular Israeli response in May, after there was cross-border rocket fire from Lebanon, should have made it clear.

From Hizbullah's mood it is apparent that Nasrallah is pursuing an indefinite war for political survival. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not reassure him, nor was she expected to, by laying down a series of diktats during her visit to Beirut rather than flexible negotiating positions. The latter will have to wait until her return to the region, when real bargaining begins. And this will last a long time.

But how long can Nasrallah last? Much has been made of the secretary general's celebrated steadfastness and the fact that he has before him only two choices - victory or defeat. If that's his narrow reading, then he is heading toward heartbreak, because sooner or later the weight of the Lebanese sectarian system is likely to impose defeat on him if he refuses to make necessary concessions. The reason is simple: No Lebanese leader - not Amin Gemayel in 1982, Michel Aoun in 1989, or Emile Lahoud in 2004 - can indefinitely bend the country to the breaking point, or push it toward communal destabilization, without the old sectarian ways kicking in to impose a correction. And in the absence of concessions by maximalist leaders, the system has usually collapsed into war.

It has been obvious in the past year that for all its military prowess, Hizbullah has had no inkling about the subtleties of domestic sectarian politics. Perhaps that is because the Shiites were never truly afforded a way into the system before 1975, when the Civil War started. But it is also because the party spent 15 of the post-war years pampered by Syria - allowed to amass a huge military arsenal and pursue a war option while being guaranteed a bloc of seats in Lebanon's Parliament. There was little hard work involved and none of the Byzantine give and take that sectarian groups must engage in to build coalitions across religious lines.

Nasrallah is all soaring ambition, which is precisely why he never took to the pettiness and symmetry of sectarian haggling. And today, with Hizbullah fighting a war on behalf of, variously, the Arabs, Islam, Lebanon, and the Shiites (who can forget Nasrallah's initial cry after the Israeli onslaught that Israel would never defeat the children of Mohammad, Ali, Hassan, and Hussein), it might be his own domestic partners who have the final say in how Hizbullah behaves.

Nasrallah would now scoff at this. But as the conflict drags on, the weight of the refugees, the fact that their long dislocation will negatively affect Shiite power as a whole, that most Lebanese oppose an open-ended conflict, and the rising economic cost of the hostilities, will push the secretary general's adversaries, but perhaps also, and more importantly, his own Shiite comrades - notably Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri - to question the wisdom of further obstinacy. Nasrallah cannot declare war on all of Lebanese society. It seems far more rewarding for him to take a step back now and see what he can yet salvage.

Berri will play a pivotal role in the coming weeks. As the senior Shiite official in the country, he finds himself awkwardly caught between his community and the state. For the moment Nasrallah has only authorized the speaker to negotiate on his behalf in the matter of a prisoner exchange and a cease-fire. However, Berri is unlikely to relish the idea of permitting a Shiite Gotterdammerung, and Nasrallah's dilemma offers him a way back into the political game after years of erosion in his power. The parliamentary majority is hesitant to demand anything of Nasrallah without a Shiite partner, and their eye is firmly on Berri.

That's one reason why Berri's unfriendly meeting with Rice on Monday was a good thing. It enhanced the speaker's credibility with his coreligionists, showing he was no American patsy, even as the secretary of state acknowledged by meeting Berri that any international peace plan for Lebanon required his approval. However, it is still premature for Berri to risk his standing with Nasrallah, and with his own electorate, by asking him to be more malleable. If the speaker does jump ship, it won't be before many more weeks of fighting and a likely intensification of the violence. More cynically, Berri might be waiting to see if Hizbullah loses ground militarily before making any such move.

Nasrallah has declared a war beyond Haifa, while the Israelis are now engaged in a ground war beyond Bint Jbeil. But Hizbullah may soon be fighting on two fronts - against Israel in the South and, figuratively, inside Lebanon. Let us hope that Nasrallah does not carry his battle beyond Bint Jbeil as well, this time in the direction of Beirut and after Beirut.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.