Friday, March 25, 2011

Hezbollah, at home alone

An astute friend and I were talking about the recent publication by the daily Al-Akhbar of American diplomatic cables circulated by WikiLeaks. Most of the published documents purport to show how Lebanese politicians welcomed, or sought to exploit, a Hezbollah defeat in the summer war of 2006. The party has used the leaks to affirm that its political enemies were on Israel’s side. My friend, a Shia journalist, had a different view. What they really showed, he said, was how isolated and unpopular Hezbollah is.

Indeed, several of the cables, written by the former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, show not Hezbollah’s enemies, but its allies expressing discomfort, or displeasure, with the party. They include two parliamentarians from Michel Aoun’s bloc, Farid el-Khazen and Ibrahim Kanaan, and the former health minister, Muhammad Jawad Khalifeh, who is close to the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri (and who described Berri’s anger with Hezbollah).

It is not clear why Al-Akhbar decided to reveal these documents now. The net effect of the decision will be to highlight tensions and settle scores within the ranks of the new majority, amid reports that a new government is imminent. For example, the leaks are particularly embarrassing to the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt – in 2006 a March 14 stalwart, today an equally stalwart ally of Hezbollah and Syria.

Of course, the leaks could be efforts by Hezbollah to keep their shifty partners, Jumblatt and Berri, in line. They also serve, quite conveniently, to discredit Kanaan and Khazen, at a time when Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, is attempting to eliminate all rivals who might hinder his rise within the Aounist firmament. Not surprisingly, Bassil is revealed in the publicized cables to have been an ardent advocate of Hezbollah during the conflict with Israel.

Yet all this really just confirms what my comrade said. If Hezbollah and its echo chambers need to warn even their allies to stay on board politically; if the party is furious with the double language of the Lebanese political class, whose members will readily spill the beans even to the Americans, then that does not say much about Hezbollah’s capacity to unite Lebanon behind its resistance. In fact, it tends to confirm something that we always suspected: the party has managed to enforce a consensus solely through intimidation.

This poses potential problems for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general. His implicit contract with Iran is that his party be prepared to protect and advance Tehran’s interests in the Levant, to the extent that Hezbollah would retaliate against Israel if the Israelis were to bombard Iranian nuclear facilities. But for such a project to be effective, for Hezbollah to go to war with confidence that its countrymen are not working behind its back against its interests, the party would have to enjoy widespread Lebanese backing.

The blunt reality is that it doesn’t. Hezbollah long ago lost the Sunni community. The Druze will follow Jumblatt, but not if that means they must pay a heavy price on behalf of Hezbollah in a war against Israel that harms the community in the mountains and in the West Bekaa and Hasbaya. As for the Christians, Khazen and Kanaan reflected far more accurately the mood in the community than Bassil; there is no Christian enthusiasm, and that includes among Aoun’s followers, for seeing Lebanon suffer for a Hezbollah project.

That reluctance would be shared by many in the Shia community who yet express their fondness for Hezbollah. Nasrallah’s rash support for the Shia opposition in Bahrain last week has provoked a harsh backlash from the kingdom. We can expect many more Shia in the Gulf to soon see their residency permits or visas revoked and their financial interests and investments ruined. Add to this mix the communal anger if Shia are made to endure another devastating war with Israel in the South, and we can appreciate that Nasrallah’s margin of maneuver is not as wide as he and his partisans claim.

If a government is formed, Hezbollah will be able to consolidate itself. Nor will the government necessarily be as frail as many claim. It will enjoy a parliamentary majority, Syrian and Iranian endorsement, and could last until the next elections. However, by playing a dominant role in the government, Hezbollah risks being identified with the state’s failures. A government of “one color” will only heighten Lebanon’s contradictions, the very same that have denied Hezbollah the broad blessing it has sought for its vanguard role as a “resistance.”

That is not to suggest that Hezbollah is weakening, but rather that its ability to impose its agenda on a majority of Lebanese is less reliant on persuasion and more on coercion than at any time previously. The party has successfully deflected much potential discontent onto Michel Aoun, whom it has pushed to the front of the stage. Aoun has not disappointed. But in times of major crisis, or conflict, that tactic doesn’t go far. If the situation in Lebanon were to shift decisively, Hezbollah could suddenly find itself on its own, friendless.

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