In the dog days of summer, Lebanon’s Hezbollah is warily watching as the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress consider ways to turn the heat up on it. And as Monday’s Arabic papers revealed, Hezbollah is not alone, since Syria, too, is casting a worried look in Washington’s direction.
One issue that has put Syria and Hezbollah back in the spotlight is renewed movement in the U.S. Congress to pass a piece of legislation known as the Syria Accountability Act. It seeks to “halt [Syria’s] support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, [and] stop its development of weapons of mass destruction.” In the event of Syrian noncompliance, Congress could impose sanctions, though President Bush has the authority to waive them. Syria’s discomfort was on display Sunday when Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa held a press conference in which he bitterly criticized the Bush administration. According to the London-based Al-Hayat, Sharaa called it the “most violent and stupidest” of all administrations, adding that U.S. officials consider “any law coming out of Congress as one descending from heaven.”
More ominously, Sharaa warned that U.S. pressures to end Syrian support for Hezbollah would “awaken [Lebanon’s] confessional and religious instincts.” Beirut’s daily Al-Mustaqbal was more direct in identifying what Sharaa meant, headlining, “The Dismantlement of Hezbollah Will Open the Door to [Lebanese] Civil Wars.” Syria uses a double language when talking about the party: On one hand it argues that because Hezbollah represents a major Shiite component of Lebanese society, its dissolution would anger party supporters and provoke tension among Lebanon’s religious communities; however, many will have read Sharaa’s statement as an implicit threat that if Syria were forced to disarm Hezbollah, it might hit back by provoking intersectarian strife among the Lebanese, thus returning the country to the chaos of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Hezbollah’s integration into the fabric of Lebanese political and social life is genuine. This was demonstrated recently by the government’s decision to create a new administrative district in the Bekaa Valley that will serve as an electoral stronghold for the party. Hezbollah’s inroads into Lebanese society are essential to the party’s contention that it is not an isolated terrorist group. This theme was raised by the party’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, in an interview published Monday in the Times of London. Nasrallah insisted: “Hezbollah is a Lebanese resistance group. It has fought and is ready to fight. Hezbollah has offered martyrs and is ready to offer more martyrs to defend its people and country.” He said that if the party were threatened, it might retaliate globally since it has sympathizers (though not an armed network) all over. While the interview was laced with anti-American rhetoric, Nasrallah showed some flexibility, when, as the Times put it, he said that “Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon was of a defensive nature … [suggesting] its military wing may not be permanently deployed along the border.” While this might be a tactical ploy to reduce pressure, it could also represent preparation for a real change of direction in southern Lebanon.
That Hezbollah is keen to soften the edges on its image was evident Sunday when Nasrallah talked about prisoners. Israel has long held Lebanese prisoners, keeping them even after its withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. Hezbollah seized four Israelis after the withdrawal, only one of whom, Elhanan Tannenbaum, is believed to be alive. The party has sought to exchange its abducted Israelis (or their remains) for Hezbollah members held by Israel. As the Beirut daily Al-Safir reported, Nasrallah, speaking in the village of a Hezbollah cleric kidnapped by Israel, said “the party would give one last chance to negotiations, and called on the German mediator to return and supervise the opportunity.” The alternative to this, Nasrallah added, would be the seizure of more Israelis for exchange purposes. The Jerusalem Post quoted Nasrallah saying, “In the past, we used to say that we have three [Israelis] whose fate is unknown. Today I say to the Israelis that Tannenbaum’s fate is also unknown. Who knows if he is still alive?”
Al-Hayat, in a dispatch that came out too late for its Monday morning paper but that it placed on its Web site, quoted an Israeli government minister saying, “We were and remain ready to exchange prisoners and the disappeared.” However, he added that Nasrallah was responsible for previous failures in negotiations. It was, perhaps, a handy way of covering for the fact that Israel is willing to bargain, albeit indirectly, with what it considers to be a terrorist group.