Right of Reply: Politics won't tame Hizbullah

If anything has prevented the militant Shi'ite organization from initiating armed operations for the past three years, it is external and domestic pressure.

GAza hizbullah demo 298. (photo credit: AP)
GAza hizbullah demo 298.
(photo credit: AP)
On May 4, The Jerusalem Post published an op-ed by long-time Lebanon watcher Gary Gambill ("The Hizbullah paradox") which made a number of important points and corrected several widespread misconceptions. But Gambill's article also suffered from a number of significant omissions and mistaken premises. Worse, he ends up advocating a variant of the notion that Hizbullah participation in politics will curb its military operations. Gambill rightly notes that the so-called "grievance" argument - that removing Hizbullah's "pretexts" for continued fighting would bring disarmament - is false. Hizbullah and its Syrian backer have long been saying that there are no plans for disarmament, and have linked the need for an arsenal to a purported Israeli "threat" against Lebanon. Moreover, Hizbullah has openly said Israel's very existence constitutes an ever-present threat. Gambill also correctly dismisses the idea, developed in the 1990s, that Syria somehow holds the "solution" to the Hizbullah problem. This was false in the 1990s and remains so today. But his discussion on Iran is decidedly weaker. The relationship between Iran and Hizbullah goes well beyond what he describes as intimacy (presumably organizational, operational and structural). In fact, the relationship is based on the top-down religious doctrine invested in the hands of the supreme guide who, as Hizbullah's Naim Qassem elaborates in his book, possesses exclusive decision-making power when it comes to jihad. The interpretation of this relationship is central to understanding the function of Hizbullah's weapons. The Hizbullah militia is not concerned with advancing Shi'ite interests in the Lebanese political system, and its arsenal is certainly not there to achieve that goal. The purpose of Hizbullah's weapons, as Hassan Nasrallah said last May (while his fighters were storming civilian neighborhoods in Beirut), is to "protect the weapons." Hizbullah's participation in politics is equally aimed at safeguarding the organization's autonomous military existence. Needless to say, none of the other Lebanese communities would accept a new socio-political contract negotiated under the threat of Hizbullah's guns. AS FOR GAMBILL's assertions about Shi'ite Islam's supposedly greater potential for acceptance of a Jewish state, one need only recall the statements of Shi'ite clerics, Lebanese and Iranian, about Israel being an "absolute evil" and "a cancerous tumor." Gambill disappoints when he claims his critique does not imply that "there isn't a viable path to Hizbullah's disarmament," but fails to offer one anywhere. He skirts the issue by introducing nuance and straw men, arguing that the problem is not the goal of disarmament per se, but the drive for a "disarm Hizbullah quick" fix. It's unclear who has allegedly advocated this position, but neither the US support of Israel's operation in 2006 nor the Lebanese government's decision to move against Hizbullah's telecommunication network in 2008 qualify. Furthermore, when Gambill indirectly criticizes the application of foreign and domestic pressure, we're left with the impression that no such pressure should be brought to bear. Likewise, Gambill ironically ends up falling back on a variation of the "Lebanonization" theory - that somehow, Hizbullah's participation in Lebanese politics itself serves as a moderating influence. This is erroneous on a number of fronts, but the clearest and most recent evidence - glaringly absent in the piece - is Hizbullah's new cell in Egypt, not to mention its well-documented operations in Iraq. What this also means is that the Hizbullah problem is no longer confined to Lebanon and Israel, but touches on the US-allied Arab security system, and the Iranian drive to revise it. ULTIMATELY, GAMBILL's premise that whatever the path toward Hizbullah's disarmament it will be peaceful may itself be false. For one, there's no precedent of a militia established, financed, supplied and trained by another state deciding on its own to peacefully disarm. This is particularly the case in the Lebanese context, where any stress on the delicate socio-political system has led to armed conflict in the past. Moreover, Gambill falls into a paradox of sorts when he tries to support this notion by referring to the post-2006 status quo governed by UN Security Council Resolution 1701. What he misses is that this security regime came about precisely as a result of military intervention. Such a status quo was clearly absent before July 12, 2006, despite the fact that Hizbullah had been involved in politics since 1992. As such, if there's a factor that has prevented Hizbullah from initiating military operations for the past three years, it is external and domestic pressure: the Israeli use of force, and the subsequent dynamics in Lebanon. Furthermore, he also ignores Hizbullah's repeated undermining of UNSCR 1701, and the almost daily statements by its officials that a pro-Hizbullah majority in parliament would signal the "final funeral ceremony" of UNSCR 1559, which 1701 recalls, and which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. Nothing indicates that Hizbullah has any interest in peaceful, voluntary disarmament, and nowhere does Gambill convincingly sketch out any such scenario. The question was never about whether the Obama administration will "roll the dice." Rather, the question remains whether and how soon Nasrallah - and his regional patrons - decide to gamble on replacing UNSCR 1701 with a more advantageous architecture, which Lebanon will certainly not be able to afford. The writer is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon, Hizbullah and Syria. He is a contributor to the Jerusalem Post blog Levant in Focus.