Friday, January 9, 2009

Tiptoeing around death in South Lebanon

The rocket attacks yesterday across Lebanon's southern border with Israel were a worrying sign that the conflict in Gaza may escalate into a wider conflagration. Hizbullah, or whichever group it allowed to fire the weapons from its territory, sought in some degree to push a fearful international community into imposing a cease-fire in Gaza, where the Israeli stranglehold may lead to the imposition of an Egyptian-French plan whose outcome is the military neutralization of Hamas.

Hizbullah must have also found intolerable its immobility in the past two weeks, reduced as it was to providing Hamas with verbal encouragement. For a party that claims to be the vanguard of the armed struggle against Israel, cheerleading from the sidelines was surely mortifying. However, at this early stage it seems that neither Hizbullah nor Israel wants to go to all-out war. Responsibility for the attack on the Lebanese side was kept ambiguous, while Israel's response was limited in scope, with some officials there preferring to put the blame on unidentified Palestinians.

The reality is that Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, is facing constraints as he ponders what to do next. For starters, he must evaluate the consequences of Hizbullah's two pyrrhic victories, in 2006 and 2008, which he and his followers still insist are incontestable.

The first is Hizbullah's purported victory in summer 2006. Presumably, victories over Israel are so desirable that the Lebanese in general, and the Shiites in particular, would care to turn them into an annual event. If so, then why are the Shiites so reluctant to repeat what happened that year? Perhaps they sense that the brutal displacement of 1 million people, and the killing of 1,200 others, only qualified as a victory in the narrowest and most counterintuitive of ways. Nasrallah, for all his bravado two years ago, must now factor in the Shiite refusal to be similarly punished once more, and the refusal of a Lebanese majority to suffer his whims.

The second victory Nasrallah must consider is that of early May 2008, when his men overran western Beirut and humiliated the Sunni community. In the short term, that episode gave the opposition veto power in the government and an election law that will preserve Hizbullah's share in Parliament. But in the context of the party's long-term struggle against Israel, it may have been catastrophic. A reason why Nasrallah has hesitated to intervene more publicly over Gaza is that last May he squandered any national consensus behind the idea of resistance that Hizbullah once enjoyed, and today the party cannot even be certain of protecting its rear if Israel again devastates Lebanon.

An interesting subplot is playing itself out in the local media. Most Lebanese want to be seen as on the Palestinians' side, but there is marked competition between the Hariri camp, through its Future satellite television channel and Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, and Hizbullah's media outlets, over who can best express outrage when it comes to the Palestinians' plight. In Lebanon's polarized sectarian atmosphere, the Future movement and other Sunni political groups, particularly the Jamaa Islamiyya, have done everything but say what is really on their minds: that Palestine is, above all, a Sunni concern, regardless of Hizbullah's efforts to place itself at the center of the battle against Israel; therefore, Nasrallah should not repeat what he said in 2006, when he accused his local rivals of colluding with Israel against Hizbullah.

If Nasrallah feels pressed domestically, he can't be much very more reassured by what is happening regionally. What, for example, are Syria's calculations? It's quite possible that the rocket attack on Thursday was carried out, with Hizbullah's acquiescence, by pro-Syrian Palestinians. Like all good merchants in carrion, the Assad regime will probably emerge from the Gaza confrontation stronger. If Hamas is neutralized, the Syrians will doubtless see one of their cards devalued, but they will also be able to compensate for that because the United States and the Europeans will embrace Syria as an ally in containing troublesome non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbullah. That Syria helped arm these groups in the first place will be stubbornly ignored. President Bashar Assad will be given a chance to bargain over the dead of Gaza in the same way that his father bargained over the dead of Qana in April 1996.

Nasrallah knows that any Hizbullah move on Israel's northern border would only give Assad a stronger hand to offer his services abroad, at the expense of the party. In that complicated minuet, Iran, too, must be careful of the consequences if a broader conflict ignites in southern Lebanon. Syria would use this to better sell its Lebanese return to the Americans; Hizbullah could find itself isolated domestically in the run-up to parliamentary elections in June; and Iran risks not only seeing its Hamas ally in Gaza diminished, but Hizbullah as well. And this time Tehran's ability to throw money around to placate Lebanon's Shiites might not be what it was two years ago. The results in Lebanon would feed into Iran's presidential election, so that what happens here could determine the political fate of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

These concerns notwithstanding, Nasrallah also faces a more profound problem if he comes across as a helpless prisoner of Lebanese realities. By showing he can do nothing on the Israeli border, for fear of heightening tensions at home, he undermines Hizbullah's deterrence capability in the event Israel strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. From the start of the war in Gaza, Iran's containment has hovered over Arab decision-making. That explains why Hizbullah could not remain idle indefinitely. Nasrallah had to establish that, even in the most unpropitious of times, he could still use his weapons, or allow others to do so, against Israel.

As the abduction of Israeli soldiers in July 2006 showed, however, attacks too carefully calibrated can easily get out of hand. Israel and Hizbullah may not want to return to those days, but they will fight a new war with relish if one becomes unavoidable. More bothersome, Lebanon is back to being a hostage to the choices of one man, who in order to defend his party, and particularly its standing with its regional sponsors, needs to engage in brinkmanship at the expense of his own compatriots.

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