Hezbollah's Power Play

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

Once again, Lebanon faces an internal crisis, generated by the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri (who followed in his father Rafik’s footsteps after his assassination) following the withdrawal of Hezbollah and its allies from the coalition. Mr. Hariri will continue to head a caretaker government until a new one is constituted, but his ability to maneuver in the meanwhile, let alone govern, will be vastly reduced. More importantly, he will be facing immediate and uncomfortable choices. In this crisis, Hezbollah has been the key driver.

With all the risks for everyone involved, Hezbollah has retained the upper hand, even as the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister is under review at a UN tribunal. The demographics inside Lebanon are on the side of its Shia base. The internal distribution of power is also decidedly in its favor. Politically, Hezbollah managed to assert itself in both the previous ruling coalition and the current March 14 coalition by exercising its military superiority in the confrontations of 2008. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah continues to be among the most popular in the Arab world—with his opponents looking weaker by the day through the continuous revelations coming out of WikiLeaks. Expected new releases about the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict are likely to play into Hezbollah’s hands in the war over Arab public opinion as well.

Still, the Hariri tribunal is highly threatening to Hezbollah. It has the power of the United Nations behind it, and, more importantly, it gives those who want to weaken Hezbollah in the West legitimate ammunition. And it is widely expected that some Hezbollah members will be named by the tribunal in conjunction with the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister. There is also something else that threatens Nasrallah’s legitimacy. In an era of credibility deficits among Arab leaders in the eyes of their publics, Hezbollah’s chief has built his influence outside of Lebanese borders based on a sense of integrity that he carefully cultivated. This only added to his personal charisma. In his appeal to the masses, he has mastered the touch of speaking to the hearts of Arabs as no one has done since Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt passed from the scene in 1970. But Nasrallah seems mindful of what was Nasser’s primary weakness: his loss of credibility, not only because of his unexpected defeat in the 1967 war, but even more because of the gap between what he (and his media) had said about the conflict and what the naked reality turned out to be. In the 2006 war, Hezbollah was particularly keen on not exaggerating Israeli casualties, and making sure that it did not make threats it could not carry out. Certainly, that’s the view of many of Nasrallah’s admirers across the Arab world. But faced with the possibility that members of his group were responsible for killing the prime minister of Lebanon has put all this in peril.

Remarkably, up until this point he has survived the tensest moments of Shia-Sunni tensions in the Middle East. Even as sectarianism was particularly pronounced in Iraq and Lebanon, Nasrallah managed to retain his popularity in Sunni-majority Arab countries like Jordan and Egypt. And even as he entered into a duel with the Sunni-supported government of Fuad Seniora following the 2006 war, more Arabs in these countries took Nasrallah’s side than that of the Lebanese government. Critical to Nasrallah’s popularity is not only his seeming effectiveness in dealing with Israel—which remains critical—but also a projection of himself as an Arab nationalist, as a Lebanese nationalist, even as he also advocates for his own Shia community. This image would inevitably come under assault if evidence is presented implicating his group in the Hariri assassination—which is why he took steps to preempt this possibility weeks ago.

Nasrallah’s first big move was to raise doubts in the minds of the Lebanese and other Arabs about the credibility of the Hariri tribunal and its findings. In a speech that was broadcast in full by Al-Jazeera, he set out to argue that Israel was behind the Rafik Hariri assassination. He presented video footage and apparently intercepted Israeli military communications, all of which captured wide Arab audiences. His starting point was something that many, maybe even most Arabs believe: that Israel is behind many of the events that intensify conflict and sectarianism in Arab and Muslim countries. Arabs are nothing if not open to this interpretation. His challenge was to present evidence that Israel was specifically behind the Hariri assassination. And while he presented little that can stand up in a court of law, he managed to convey enough doubt that, coupled with the Arab instinct to see Israel’s hand in every Arab problem, gives him some protection and a basis for argument when the tribunal releases its findings.

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.