Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Being Hassan Nasrallah

Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal:
Imagine yourself as a heavily bearded 46-year-old Shiite cleric from Lebanon named Hassan Nasrallah. Your job title is secretary general of Hezb Allah, or Party of God, which holds 14 of parliament's 128 seats, including a seat in the cabinet. You've provoked a war with Israel, to the dismay of many Lebanese, though by no means of all. Refugees are streaming northward as an Israeli land invasion threatens. The south Beirut office where you worked until last week has been reduced to rubble by Israeli warplanes.

Generally speaking, things are going your way. READ MORE

It helps that the same air force that destroyed your offices previously dropped leaflets to warn of the coming demolition. (The neighborhood was never much to look at in the first place.) It helps, too, that of the few hundred missiles you've lost from your arsenal of 13,000 -- either because you fired them or because they were destroyed by Israeli air and artillery attacks -- can easily be replaced by your Iranian suppliers. You've also lost some men, none senior in the organization. They will serve as faces for Hezbollah's next batch of recruitment posters.

It's true this isn't quite how you imagined it would be. You wanted to prick, not provoke. You wanted to engage in some symbolic act of solidarity with Hamas, your Sunni "brothers" in the anti-Zionist resistance, which is under extreme Israeli pressure in the Gaza Strip.

You also figured you might get something for your trouble. In 2000, you captured and killed three Israeli soldiers without consequence. You also kidnapped a shady Israeli businessman named Elhanan Tannenbaum, who happened to be a colonel in the army reserves. A little more than three years later, Ariel Sharon himself agreed to swap hundreds of prisoners for Mr. Tannenbaum and the remains of the three soldiers. Earlier this month, a senior Israeli security official made noises that Israel might release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the 19-year-old corporal Hamas captured in a raid from Gaza in June. The Zionists have a motherly regard for the safety of their soldiers. It's one of their weaknesses, you think.

But now the Israelis have upped the ante. You might have thought they would attack Syria, as they had every right to do. Syria openly harbors Hamas chieftain Khaled Mashaal, who's calling the shots in Gaza. Syria is also, with Iran, your patron and supplier. Instead, not only have the Israelis come after you in Lebanon, they've all but declared war on the pro-American government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and attacked Lebanese army installations. Christmas in July! (as the infidels say).

So now you're considering broader possibilities. Your missile barrages into the Israeli heartland are once again burnishing your reputation as the boldest and most effective anti-Zionist force in the Arab world. That's a welcome change: After the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah had gone from being seen as a noble resistance force to a stooge of Lebanon's Syrian occupiers.

Then, too, in the last year there has been growing international and domestic pressure to fold Hezbollah's military wing into the national army, as required by the 1989 Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war and by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. If the Israeli army invades southern Lebanon, you'll get to play the resistance card all over again. That you started this whole business will quickly be forgotten.

You're also thinking about what all this might mean for Hezbollah's political future. Here's a fact about Lebanon that many people would rather forget: The birth rate among Shiites averages between eight and nine per household. By contrast, Sunni households produce about five children, while Christians and Druze average two.

Yet Lebanon's antiquated "confessional" political system, based in part on a 1932 census, gives Christians half the seats in parliament (as well as the presidency), while Shiites, who may already be a majority, are allotted only 27 seats. Is this "democratic"? You think not.

For years, your political strategy has been to consolidate Hezbollah's position among Shiites and co-opt the ever-weakening Christians in a common alliance against the Sunnis. Hezbollah has also consciously soft-pedaled its position in parliament, figuring it can bide its time before it claims its rightful place.

Now you're thinking of accelerating that timetable. If the security situation really gets out of hand in the next few weeks, you might assert military control in the Bekaa Valley and around Beirut. The Sunnis and Christians will denounce you, but they no longer have militias of their own to fight you. Besides, current Lebanese President Emile Lahoud -- an ally of Syria and therefore an ally of yours -- still exerts influence with the army, which happens to be about 35% Shiite.

What worries you? Not the "international community," which dependably finds more to fault in Israel's actions than in yours. Not an enlarged U.N. peacekeeping force; the U.N. has been in southern Lebanon for ages, without ever obstructing your designs. The Americans tilt toward Israel, but there's no chance of them intervening: They learned their lesson after you bombed their Marines' barracks in 1983.

As for the Israelis, so far they have not meaningfully degraded your capacity to fight. Their chief of staff, Dan Halutz, is every bit as tough-minded as Ariel Sharon was in his prime. But their prime minister is untested, and their defense minister is a political dove. You also suspect the Israeli public is in no mood for a reprise of their full-scale invasion of 1982, the only scenario that really frightens you. So at worst it's back to an Israeli "security zone." Been there; beaten that.

Things could go wrong: Maybe the Israelis will find and kill you; maybe they'll put the squeeze on Syria. But as they say about these sorts of conflicts, anything except total defeat is victory. Your masters in Tehran -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- are well pleased.