Hezbollah's Power Play

By blaming Israel for the Hariri assasination, Nasrallah is winning the propaganda war.

Equally important, Nasrallah understood that by speaking of an Israeli conspiracy theory, he could delegitimize any tribunal findings that place blame on Hezbollah for the murder of Hariri, which would risk a civil war. And this has provided the space for other political players to side with Nasrallah. His most important success in that mission was to gain the support of a key member of the March 14 coalition, Druze leader Walid Jumblat, who was as transparent in his calculations as a political leader can be. He argued that, given the choice between avoiding civil war in Lebanon on the one hand, and “justice” on the other, he decided to choose the former and urged Prime Minister Saad Hariri to do the same. He saw in Nasrallah’s theory a cover to do what he thought must be done. Of course, Jumblat is asking much of Hariri, as the tribunal is not only supported by Hariri’s international allies, but at its core involves the killing of his own father. Jumblat blamed the Syrians for killing his father as well—and at one point asked the Americans to bomb Damascus—only to end up apologizing to Syria later. Moral flexibility is clearly what’s expected.

Of course, Hariri already made considerable accommodations with Syria and Hezbollah, and those in spite of the multiple pressures he faces from within Lebanon, as well as from outside, especially from France, the United States and the United Nations, who will undoubtedly continue to support the tribunal and reject Hezbollah efforts to delegitimize it. But the collapse of the government makes the choices presented by Jumblat seemingly more real and harder to avoid: risk a civil war whose outcome is at best uncertain—or at least risk Lebanese political chaos—or find some accommodation with Hezbollah on their demands.

Civil war is not in the interest of any of the parties in Lebanon—including Hezbollah, no matter their bluster. Hezbollah sees time to be on its side in Lebanon and all-out conflict would disrupt its plans. It could also draw others (Israel, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France) into the conflict in a way that may make it difficult for them to manage. Israel, of course, is always the rub.

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah appear interested in an all-out conflict at this point, both mindful of the heavy costs of their 2006 clash. But there is an Israeli mindset that expects another war with Hezbollah, as Israelis see in the rapid growth of Hezbollah’s power a strategic threat, both in and of itself, and as an asset for Iran. If and when such a war occurs, it will unlikely be simply a function of political opportunity, as each side wants to carefully plan the timing and the nature of the war. Certainly, there are always unanticipated circumstances that can lead to escalation, and if Lebanon descends into serious internal fighting, this will inevitably draw in outside parties—including Israel. But for now, Nasrallah’s departure from the governing coalition may actually complicate Israel’s evolving war strategy. It has become clear that the Israeli military has been conceiving of the next war as one not simply with Hezbollah, but with the Lebanese state, which means a substantially changed targeting strategy. Israel’s case would have been bolstered by the fact that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. But if the government is one supported by the United States and Europe and is at odds with Hezbollah, the Israeli case is weakened. At a minimum, it is much harder for Israel to rely on the threat of targeting the Lebanese state as means of deterring Hezbollah.

The risks of unintended conflict are ever present in environments of uncertainty and political instability such as the one Lebanon is now facing. But the bet for now is that all this Hezbollah posturing is a way of dealing with the Hariri tribunal results. And Nasrallah has put himself and his group in a better position to deal with what might come.