The Hizbullah paradox

Shi'ite Islam bares traits that bode well for eventual acceptance of a Jewish state in Palestine.

released generals lebanon ap 248 (photo credit: AP)
released generals lebanon ap 248
(photo credit: AP)
Since the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, the American foreign policy establishment has been preoccupied with securing the disarmament of the militant Lebanese Shi'ite Hizbullah movement. Unfortunately, experts who cater to the above have yet to advance a plausible strategy for achieving this goal. While no one advocates forcible disarmament of Hizbullah, many have long maintained that intensified foreign and domestic coercive pressure on the group will encourage its demilitarization. In fact, Israel's 2006 military campaign against Hizbullah and an abortive attempt by Lebanon's governing coalition to shut down its telecommunications network last spring (both encouraged by Washington) only strengthened Shi'ite support for the movement. So long as it enjoys the firm solidarity of the country's largest sectarian group, aid to Lebanese security forces (while advisable on other grounds) cannot produce a counterforce politically capable of challenging Hizbullah. Others have argued that removing Hizbullah's declared pretexts for "resistance" will facilitate public pressure for its disarmament. However, while past concessions by Israel (e.g. withdrawing from south Lebanon in 2000, releasing all remaining Lebanese prisoners last summer) chipped away at Hizbullah's pool of grievances, they also served to sanctify and legitimize its militia. There is little reason to believe that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms enclave will persuade Lebanese Shi'ites to accept (let alone press for) Hizbullah's disarmament. The conventional wisdom that Syria or Iran can be induced to solve the Hizbullah problem by fiat is also problematic. Coercing or persuading Damascus to cut off Hizbullah's arms supplies may gradually weaken the strategic threat posed by its arsenal, but it won't appreciably degrade the group's capacity to fend off the state and rival militias. Iran has a much more intimate relationship with Hizbullah, but its deeply unpopular clerical regime may not be politically capable of getting tough with the Shi'ite world's most admired public figure even if it were strategically disposed to do so (which it clearly isn't). A fourth hypothetical path to disarmament centers on domestic reform to alleviate the Lebanese Shi'ite community's longstanding political and economic subordination, thereby reducing its perceived need for the protection and leverage of a militia. Then-Senator Barack Obama alluded to this catalyst at the height of the Lebanon's political crisis last spring, calling for "electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and ... a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment." However, this kind of change will be difficult to effect and take years to complete. In the meantime, a credible reform process will bolster Hizbullah's stature as guardian of Shi'ite communal interests. THIS IS NOT to say there isn't a viable path to Hizbullah's disarmament. While Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah may be as zealously anti-Zionist as the Palestinian leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, his Lebanese constituents have no significant territorial dispute against Israel and lack the kind of existential antipathy felt by many Palestinians. Shi'ite Islam is more accepting of sectarian heterogeneity than Sunni Islam and less oriented around the ideal of Arab-Islamic unity - traits that bode well for eventual acceptance of a Jewish state in Palestine. The overwhelming majority of Lebanese Shi'ites support Hizbullah's refusal to disarm because they consider its militia vital to their security and political clout - instrumental considerations that can, in principle, be changed without a major diplomatic breakthrough in the Mideast peace process. However, the first step in finding a way forward is recognizing that "disarm Hizbullah quick" schemes aren't likely to work (and could make things considerably worse). Those who passionately insist otherwise are selling something (usually a broader policy agenda). Fortunately, there is no compelling reason for the Obama administration to roll the dice. The deployment of UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon after the 2006 war effectively sealed off Hizbullah's access to the battlefield, while the enormous destruction Israel rained upon Lebanon has rendered unprovoked cross-border attacks politically unthinkable. So long as Hizbullah is actively engaged in the political sphere (and periodically reminded of the apocalypse to follow any armed provocations against Israel), this nearly three-year state of non-belligerency could prove to be remarkably durable. The writer is the editor of Mideast Monitor and publishes widely on Lebanese and Syrian politics, terrorism, and democratization in the Middle East.