Hezbollah Missed Opportunities to Grow in Lebanon

Article Summary
The Shiite party missed two key chances to benefit from conflict in the region, writes Rosana Bou Mounsef. It let the chance to normalize relations with the West in light of the Syrian crisis pass it by, and failed to take advantage of the Islamists’ rise in power since the Arab Spring. 

According to observers, Hezbollah missed the boat on at least two opportunities over the past year. The first opportunity is related to the organization’s growing power in Lebanon. The “ambiguous” manner in which the party came to power caused a wave of protests. However, the Arab Spring revolutions, and mainly the Syrian  crisis, drove the international community to increasingly support the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah still has a say. This was undertaken to prevent the situation in the country from worsening. Hezbollah still does not totally control the Lebanese government, although it does play an important role in the cabinet.

Hezbollah could have benefited from the current situation to naturalize its internal and foreign relations, since the Arab countries were not yet open to its government. Although it is in Hezbollah’s best interests to mend fences with the West, they failed to capitalize on the events surrounding them. Despite its clear stance vis-a-vis the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s quiet approach to the Syrian crisis can be ascribed to its growing concerns about the potential for new developments in the south of Lebanon, and fears that the Syrian crisis might spill over the border.

Although Hezbollah has established relationships and held talks with many diplomatic figures in Lebanon, its internal stance has remained unchanged. The party has continued to hope that the Syrian crisis will not have repercussions in Lebanon. The situation could have been entirely different if Hezbollah had managed to repair its relations with local political critics, especially after the strong internal support that the party won in 1996 [after Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath]. Hezbollah’s [proclaimed] victory in 1996 helped to improve its image, leading to future victories and increased power.

However, internal dissenting voices grew louder, especially due to the accusations Hezbollah leveled against its critics in 2006, and after its invasion of Beirut in 2008. Because of this, the party lost the internal sectarian and popular support it once enjoyed.

As for the second opportunity, Hezbollah could have benefited from the surge of the Islamist movements in the Arab world. Hezbollah cheered in favor of the surge, which served the interests of the Islamic revolution in Iran. After the Arab Spring, the West has now been compelled to accept the Muslim Brotherhood, against which it has fought for years. Such Islamist organizations once described as fundamentalist and extremist are now preying on the minds of western countries.

In reality, the West now admits that relations with Islamist movements are inevitable. This acknowledgment was clearly illustrated by the West’s congratulation of Mohammed Morsi after he won the Egyptian presidential elections. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even visited Cairo to meet with Brotherhood officials after their victory, on the basis that it is in the West’s best interest to unwillingly adapt to radical change in the region. This could pave the way for further conciliatory measures between the West and Hamas, and perhaps with Hezbollah, particularly after the party seized power.

However, there are several hurdles that must be overcome before the West can normalize relations with Hezbollah, including Hezbollah’s close relations with Iran and the confrontational policy adopted by the Lebanese party against the US. This represents a much more considerable challenge for Hezbollah than its relations with Iran. Hezbollah’s confrontational relationship with the West may affect its presence in the Lebanese government.

Another hurdle is for Hezbollah to recognize that another political force other than the March 8 coalition could protect the Lebanese government against further foreign interventions. The recognition of another force could prevent Lebanon from turning into a rogue state subject to economic and financial sanctions, especially since Iranian and Syrian transactions with Lebanon’s banking sector are on the rise. Also, both Iran and Syria are exerting an increasing amount of influence over Lebanon’s political decision-making. Consequently, as we celebrate the sixth anniversary of the July 2006 war, the situation is no longer the same. Lebanon is saturated with arms, which if used today might entail many consequences that we are not going to mention here.

Significant differences exist between the Hezbollah of today and “the resistance” that existed last summer. In fact, the term resistance was then commonly used in Lebanese political literature to refer to Hezbollah and its weaponry. The use of this term came as no surprise, even when employed by Hezbollah’s critics, due to Hezbollah’s statements on the occupied territories of Ghajar, Shebaa Farms or Palestine. However, these statements have become less common. This is due to a change in the party’s priorities and a lack of justifications for it to use its arms to free the occupied territories. Hezbollah can no longer use its weaponry as it did in the July war. It is now compelled to abide by a policy of appeasement, even with Israel.

Another factor in the reduced usage of the term “resistance” is related to orienting Hezbollah’s arms toward the interior to disturb the internal political balance amid the region’s intense sectarian struggle.

According to some observers, the aggressive statements against the US have also become less common. This is due to the regional changes and the progression of the US-Iranian talks over the nuclear affair, and because of the reproaches of several Arab countries to the US after the its failure to intervene in the Syrian crisis and topple the incumbent regime. Western and Arab observers believe that the US stance on the Syrian affair has compelled Hezbollah to reduce its accusations against the US. Hezbollah has especially reduced its accusations of a US conspiracy in its political statements, and will most likely do so as long as the US for the most part stays out of the conflict.

Found in: lebanon, lebanese politics, july 2006 war, hezbollah, grapes of wrath

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