In Lebanon’s Election, a More Pragmatic Hizballah

In Lebanons Election, a More Pragmatic Hizballah

The young men in gold-collared gowns collecting their certificates as beaming parents looked on could have been at any graduation ceremony in the U.S., except perhaps for the fact that the commencement speaker appeared via a video link from an undisclosed location, so as to avoid assassination. That, and the fact that the graduates’ job prospects are probably far better than those of their Western peers right now, by virtue of the fact that most are trained guerrilla fighters. At a huge south Beirut auditorium built on the rubble of apartment buildings destroyed by Israeli bombs in the 2006 war, Hizballah on May 15 honored 2,883 men and women who had graduated from Lebanese universities this year on scholarships provided by the movement. “Beloved families, please don’t rush the front to take pictures of your dear children,” the master of ceremonies intoned from beneath a large screen showing a video compilation of greatest hits from Hizballah’s 18-year war to drive the Israelis out of Lebanon. “Each one will be photographed and the pictures will be delivered to you.”

The highlight of the day was the appearance, albeit by video, of the movement’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, one of the most wanted and most charismatic men in the Middle East. He had the audience on its feet and riveted the crowd as he spoke for at least 45 minutes without notes on the importance of education, which, along with asymmetrical warfare, has been among his top priorities since taking the reins of the Shi’ite Islamist movement in 1992. “Sitting on a school bench is a jihad in our Islamic understanding,” he told the students and their proud parents.

Nasrallah and his organization, though, may be poised for a graduation of their own. They lead an opposition political coalition that the polls show has a commanding lead in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, to be held on June 7. And if the polls are accurate, the election could put the self-styled Party of God — considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and often described as a state-within-a-state because of its shadow military infrastructure and vast social-services network — in charge of the Lebanese state. That prospect has the current U.S.-backed coalition running scared and warning that a victory by the Iran- and Syria-backed Hizballah and its allies could end Lebanon’s short-lived independence from Syria, turning it into a second Gaza or a mini-Iran.

The parliamentary election campaign, however, appears to be bringing out a more mature and pragmatic side of Hizballah. The movement’s electoral momentum is not the product of some surge in militancy among the general public; instead, it’s the result of a carefully constructed alliance with a Christian faction that grew disenchanted with the U.S.-backed Cedar Revolution that ousted the Syrians, and with their sect’s traditional pro-Western leadership. The Hizballah-allied Christian faction, which carries the support of roughly half of the country’s Christians, is led by the populist former general Michael Aoun, who decided that best way to protect Lebanon’s Christians — and, perhaps, the best way to promote his own career — was to join forces with the rising tide of Shi’a Islam.

To keep its new Christian bedfellows within the opposition tent, Hizballah is running a low-key campaign aimed at reassuring non-Shi’a voters that Sheikh Nasrallah’s movement respects Lebanon’s diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious character. Hizballah has, in fact, given up some of its own safe seats in parliament to its opposition allies in order to maintain a unified front. The Party of God will, in all probability, actually lose seats on June 7, in order to assume an even more powerful behind-the-scenes role in a new government. All it asks in return, Nasrallah says, is for the new government to formalize and protect the autonomy of the Resistance — Hizballah’s military infrastructure, which it claims is necessary to deter Israeli aggression.

Although Israeli and U.S. officials are naturally apprehensive, even with a new government accepting its military role it remains unlikely that Hizballah would be able to suddenly launch a war with Israel. Although it managed to spin the disastrous stalemate of its 2006 war with Israel into a “Divine Victory” for all Arabs, the group has yet to deliver on its promise to rebuild thousands of homes destroyed by Israeli bombs. Even Hizballah’s most ardent supporters are not eager to lose their homes again in a new confrontation. And Hizballah’s patrons in Damascus and Tehran are waiting, at least for now, to see what new possibilities emerge from an Obama administration determined to engage its adversaries in diplomacy.

Even if the responsibilities of government limit Hizballah’s options, it won’t change the organization’s DNA — with its hundreds of schools teaching reading, writing and resistance, its small arms training at scout camps, and thousands of fighters and scholars, Hizballah has prepared a generation of Lebanese Shi’ites for struggle against Israel. The movement’s leaders say its military capacity will only be used to defend Lebanon, but it defines the Shebaa Farms district still under Israeli occupation as Lebanese territory , and that’s just one factor that could spark a new round of fighting. Another is that Hizballah blames last year’s assassination of its security chief, Imad Mughniyeh, on Israel. And it’s an open secret that Hizballah is acquiring anti-aircraft technology in the hopes of bringing down one of the Israeli warplanes that constantly violate Lebanese airspace.

But the danger of confrontation is unrelated to the outcome of the election. As long as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues and the U.S. and Iran vie for supremacy in the Middle East, Lebanon will always be at risk of being turned into a battlefield. The job prospects for Hizballah’s Class of 2009 may be bright, then, but they could yet involve martyrdom.
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