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"Hizbullah should hedge its bets"
Comment by Reinoud Leenders in Daily Star


Few political actors in the Middle East have seen their environment as thoroughly affected by recent events in the region as Hizbullah.

One after another, the party's local and regional cards appear to have been lost: Israel's May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon deprived Hizbullah of its principal raison d'etre; America's swift military success in Iraq reduced the immediate prospect of it being drawn into a costly confrontation; and international efforts to restore calm between Israelis and Palestinians, combined with intense pressure on radical Palestinian Islamist groups, have diminished Hizbullah's ability to invoke the Palestinian struggle as a justification for armed action.

Today, more than ever since its establishment in the mid-1980s, the organization's fate hangs in the balance.

There is little doubt that US pressure helped push Hizbullah into its relative passivity of late - at least until the attack a few days ago following the assassination of a party militant. However, to be effective, a policy that targets countries and organizations that sponsor or engage in armed attacks ought to also offer a prospect of gain if they cease doing so. The US should be much clearer in presenting these potential gains. At the least, it should present to Syria a concept of a fair and lasting Israeli-Syrian peace, even if its implementation isn't immediate and will require prior Syrian steps to boost Israeli confidence - particularly with respect to Damascus' support for radical groups. Iran, too, is entitled to hear the US recognizing its security concerns in Iraq and mentioning the trade-offs Washington is prepared to undertake to guarantee them.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah is engaged in its own soul-searching. Pressured to undertake a strategic shift, it must decide whether its future is as one of many Lebanese political actors, or whether it will maintain its hybrid nature - part political party, part armed militia, part local organization, part internationalist movement. Hizbullah appears perplexed by developments and still struggling to find its footing. Uncomfortable in its current posture, yet unwilling to fundamentally change, it has opted to wait and see, maintaining the rhetoric and armed capability of a militant organization, but few of its concrete manifestations.

Hizbullah is postponing an inevitably wrenching internal debate by banking on the radicalization of the Iraqi and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. It hopes that this might revitalize Hizbullah's drive, its patrons' strength, or both. The party is gambling that Washington might fail to establish a legitimate political authority in Iraq. Iranian or Syrian influence might grow there, and the country might yet turn into a deadly quagmire for the US. Similarly, violence between Israelis and Palestinians could resume. Hizbullah believes that such scenarios would relieve pressure on it to disarm and "normalize."

Hizbullah's calculation may well prove right. The weakness, however, is that the party's assessment is based entirely on an assumption that the US is heading toward disaster. This may be consistent with Hizbullah's own experience of foreign occupation in Lebanon. But given the larger repercussions of the Iraqi crisis, analogies can be deceiving. Despite the flaws of US policies, one cannot rule out that US President George W. Bush's administration will achieve some of its policy aims.

In Iraq, most political forces may conclude that political engagement with the US will bring them more by way of an American withdrawal than fighting 150,000 occupying soldiers, even as remnants of former dictator Saddam Hussein's regime seek to fill the vacuum. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Bush may decide to provide a decisive impetus to the "road map," partly because he invested his personal political credibility in the plan.

Consequently, Hizbullah may find itself back in the firing line. Under renewed and intensified US pressure, Iran and Syria may decide to abandon the party as a liability, especially when it has not been able to systematically sustain an active military front in southern Lebanon. Hizbullah may have foregone an opportunity to use its political capital derived from its resistance efforts to transform itself into a prominent civilian party preoccupied with mundane, but also pressing domestic Lebanese issues, such as administrative reform, balanced development and debt management.

Even if American fortunes in the region sour, it is far from certain that Washington would cease pressing Hizbullah. In fact, the exact opposite may occur, as American frustration focuses on the party, thanks to its real or perceived role in contributing to regional US setbacks. Nor is it inconceivable that the constraints currently imposed on Israel to refrain from carrying out a pre-emptive strike against Hizbullah may be lifted. The party's post-withdrawal rationale in posing as a deterrence force in the south may suffer from the same flaw that condemned Israel in Lebanon: An armed presence is justified as a means of deterring an attack that is made far more probable by virtue of the armed presence itself.

Hizbullah's leaders repeatedly stress that their party is Lebanese by virtue of membership, constituency and interests. Yet by wagering so heavily on a single scenario, whereby the US and Israel may be done in by disasters, Hizbullah is putting all its (and Lebanon's) political eggs in one basket. The result may be Lebanon's isolation in a region dominated by the US, and renewed armed conflict in the south of the country.

Instead, Hizbullah should turn its resources, organizational skills and party discipline to more constructive pursuits. In the interest of both its own constituency and all Lebanese, it should fully become part of an effort to build Lebanon as a prosperous post-war society.

12 August 2003

Copyright© 1997-2003 The Daily Star



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