Analysis: Lebanon's government finds itself between a rock and a hard place

The Lebanese government now finds itself in a delicate predicament: as Israel continues to pound its national infrastructure in retaliation for Hizbullah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Beirut must protect its international standing by distancing itself from the terrorist movement, while simultaneously maintaining its already-delicate national unity. Lebanon experts worry that the "puppet" government is powerless to act against the thugs in its midst - and that by radicalizing Lebanese society, Israel may be playing directly into Hizbullah's hands. Israel's overall strategy is to apply military and diplomatic pressure on the Lebanese government in the hope that it will then lean on Hizbullah to withdraw from the southern border area, and disarm. The question that remains, however, is whether Lebanon is willing - and capable - of doing so. Israel maintains that as a political party with seats in Lebanon's government, Hizbullah's actions constitute an act of war conducted by a sovereign state - and that Lebanon therefore bears responsibility for those actions. However, Lebanese officials have repeatedly denied any knowledge of or responsibility for the attacks, and have distanced themselves from Hizbullah. Experts agree that Hizbullah acted without the knowledge or support of its coalition partners. According to Moshe Marzuk of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, "the [Lebanese] government was very surprised by Hizbullah's act." Ribal Zweil, a spokesman for Lebanon's predominantly Christian National Liberal Party, agreed, saying, "When Hizbullah decided to act, they decided alone, without asking anyone in the government. We consider this a decision that one party should not be making, but rather something that should be decided by the whole government." Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Beirut's An-Nahar daily and the host of a weekly talk show on Al-Arabiya television, said that Wednesday's attacks created a great deal of tension within the government. "There was a great deal of anger [at Hizbullah]," he said. "There was screaming and shouting - they are not shy about venting their views." Ultimately, said Melham, "they couldn't come up with a stronger statement without risking the collapse of the government." According to Prof. Ephraim Kam of Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, "most of the [Lebanese] government has an interest in reducing the power of Hizbullah... The question is, to what extent will Israel's actions compel it to do so?" Despite Beirut's displeasure with Hizbullah's brashness, the Lebanese government clearly feels powerless against the Syrian-backed organization. Syria's 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, who had protested against Syria's puppet president, Emile Lahoud, underscored the country's weakness. According to Marzuk, "After Hariri's assassination, the Lebanese government is afraid of Syria. Everyone is afraid for his life, and is afraid to condemn Hizbullah." Prof. Ephraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center said that "Lebanon is to a great extent powerless over Hizbullah. It's the only militia that's ready to fight - and Lebanon has shown that it's not ready to disarm Hizbullah, despite repeated demands from the international community." The terrorist organization appears only too aware that it is in an enviable position - on one hand, generously backed by Syria and Iran; on the other, free to operate in the shadows. "[Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is a charismatic man with a strong, well-organized social group and military wing, plus support from Syria and Iran," said Melhem. "As a multi-state actor, he is a lot harder to deter than a state like Syria, because he can go underground." According to experts, Nasrallah has also expertly used the Palestinian people as his trump card, playing to the sympathies of the Arab world while simultaneously working behind the scenes to keep Palestinians from obtaining full rights in Lebanon, where they are denied citizenship and access to many professions. "Syria and Hizbullah made huge efforts to try not to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem in Lebanon," said Marzuk. "The government of Lebanon wanted in the past to give the Palestinians citizenship -they've been there more than 50 years - but Syria uses [the Palestinians] as a playing card." Melham agrees. "There is no question that Nasrallah is using the Palestinian cause to his own advantage." He added that Nasrallah's brash statements regarding Israel, such as threatening to fire missiles at Haifa, have cast him in a hero's light on the Arab street. "No other Arab country really dares to say that," Melham said. "After [Wednesday's attacks], Hizbullah's allies were in a jubilant mood." If the Palestinian issue is one playing card in Hizbullah's deck, experts point to several others - all of which seek to inflame the Arab world. By demanding a prisoner swap, Hizbullah plays to the Beirut street. Even among those who distance themselves from the attacks, there is the acknowledgement that Hizbullah, at the very least, has a noble goal. The National Liberal Party's Zweil said the kidnapping was a "good move, but the wrong timing," adding, "everyone wants to get the prisoners back." The third card in Hizbullah's deck is the almost certain radicalization that Israel's military response will create in Lebanon. Resentment toward Israel in the Arab world is hardly a new phenomenon, but experts worry that Israel's attacks on Lebanese infrastructure will create even more support for Hizbullah and other terrorist organizations. According to Melham, "People were initially angry with Hizbullah, but Israel's actions will radicalize the population in the long run. All the tactics that Israel is using - destroying infrastructure, a disproportionate use of force, and collective punishment - backfired against them before. They are playing directly into Hizbullah's hands." "An attack on the ground is an attack against all Lebanese," said Zweil. "This is painful for everyone in Lebanon." With the situation escalating and little hope in sight, will Lebanon take action against Hizbullah? "I prefer to leave that to the government," Zweil said. For those unfettered by political considerations, the answer is blunter - and not very optimistic. "Lebanon won't take any steps against Hizbullah," said Marzuk. "Beirut's hands are tied."