Nasrallah's Brinksmanship

By: Jefferson Morley-Washington Post

November 16/2006

It has been just over three months since the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in the month-long war that left Lebanon battered and made Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah a hero to many in the Arab world.

But Nasrallah's success is costing Lebanon potentially more than the 1,200 civilians killed by Israeli attacks. Commentators see a political quandary that has brought the country to the brink of war.

Nasrallah, supported by a majority of the country's impoverished Shiites, has pitted himself against both Lebanon's pro-Western government and the popular March 14 movement, a coalition of Christian and Arab middle-class groups staunchly against Syrian influence.

Talks to establish a national unity government broke down when six cabinet ministers aligned with Hezbollah resigned over the weekend. The remaining ministers then approved a plan, opposed by Hezbollah, for an international tribunal to try the assassins of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah and its Syrian allies want to block the tribunal because U.N. investigators have implicated senior Syrian officials. Hezbollah says that the rebuilding the country is more important than satisfying the demands of the United States and Israel.

The internal power struggle has broader implications as the U.S. attempts to salvage a deteriorating situation in Iraq, an effort that some say will give leverage to American foes, Iran and Syria. '

Political Impasse
Lebanon's latest power struggles have so far been peaceful, but tense nonetheless.
Nasrallah is banking on popular demands for rebuilding to trump politics in his push for greater control in Lebanon's government. He predicted Tuesday that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's administration would fall and a "clean one will replace it" to rebuild areas destroyed by this summer's Israeli assault, according to, Hezbollah's news site. Nasrallah warned that Hezbollah could stage street demonstrations to win public support, but scoffed at talk of civil war.
Siniora has rebuffed Nasrallah's demand for veto power in a national unity government, which he called "tyranny of the minority."

The political impasse is edging toward "open confrontation between rival blocs, broadly defined by sect and external association," said the Economist. "Mr Siniora has UN legitimacy, the US, Europe and a solid parliamentary majority behind him," said the British weekly, republished in Ya Libnan.
The opposition's assets include "include the populist appeal of Hizbullah and of Michel Aoun (a former general, who won a sizeable chunk of the Christian vote in last year's election), and the political and military support of Syria and Iran."

One key demand of the March 14 movement is the establishment of an international tribunal to try the assassins of Rafiq Hariri, the billionaire former prime minster who was assassinated Feb. 14, 2005. A U.N. investigation has implicated senior Syrian officials.
"The international tribunal is necessary for a healthy Lebanon," said one commentator in Al Hayat. "Anyone who is motivated by a true patriotism should rejoice at the idea."
Hezbollah acknowledges that the international tribunal is important, but insists the issue is not fundamental to Lebanon's interest, according to the independent Lebanese news site Ya Libnan. "More important, in Hizbullah's estimation, is the danger of Lebanon falling under US and Israeli hegemony."
The Jordanian paper Al Rai (in Arabic) criticized "the March 14 forces and other groups which bound themselves to the US policy in the Middle East. These forces are now stuck in a stalemate."

The paper asked, "What would be the situation in Lebanon if Israel and the US could crush the resistance? American military bases would have been installed in the Lebanese mountains that overlook Damascus." Al Rai urged Washington to "reassess its priorities and talk directly to the powerful forces in the region," a clear allusion to Iran.

Iran's influence was visible at the height of Lebanon's cabinet crisis when a key power broker, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, went to Tehran to consult with that country's supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini. After four days, Berri, an ally of Hezbollah, flew to London where he said he had no intention of returning to Lebanon soon.

Hopes for a political breakthrough, said NaharNet, are "thin."
And fears of civil war are thick.

America Falling
Lebanon's political crisis is taking place amid a transformation of public opinion about the United States.
Hezbollah, in the view of The Washington Post and many U.S. commentators, is to blame for last summer's war in Lebanon.The group's "reckless attack on Israel...led to the devastation of the southern third of the country. About 1,200 Lebanese died, including many civilians whom Hezbollah deliberately placed in the middle of the fighting, and some 15,000 homes were destroyed," the Post's editorialists wrote Wednesday.
That's not how most people in Lebanon see it, according to a new Gallup poll released Tuesday. The largest number blamed Israel and the second largest blamed the United States.

"In almost every category, the United States was the big loser," NaharNet said of the poll. "Nearly two-thirds of the Lebanese -- 64 percent -- said their opinions of the United States had worsened the war between Israel and Hezbollah."
"Almost half those polled described their opinions as 'much worse' after the war in which Israel's mainly U.S-equipped military did substantial damage to Lebanese villages, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. "

The poll also looked at countries the Lebanese admired.
"Rated on a 5-point scale from 'very favorable' as 5 to 'very unfavorable' as 1, France, once Lebanon's colonial ruler, was the most admired among 13 nations with a 3.6, with Canada at 3.5. The only countries below the midpoint 2.5 were the United States at 2.3, Britain 2.2 and Pakistan 2.0," according to the Associated Press dispatch.