Brace yourself for a possible Hezbollah victory in Lebanon. On June 7, 2009, Lebanese voters will go to the polls, and even some in Beirut’s current “March 14″ government think the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ coalition might squeak out a win.
Lebanon, though, isn’t Gaza. A “March 8″ upset at the ballot box, if it happens, won’t come about the same way Hamas won the last Palestinian elections. Palestinians had only two viable parties to choose from, Fatah and Hamas. One Palestinian I know said Fatah’s corrupt men were so hated that even then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might have won if he stood for election against them.
Politics are much more complicated in Lebanon. The country is so ideologically fractious it makes Iraq look cohesive. Lebanon has almost as many political parties as people, yet most end up in one absurdly diverse coalition or the other. Not everyone in the anti-Syrian “March 14″ camp is a liberal democrat, and not everyone on the “March 8″ side is a jihadist.
“March 14″ includes both right-wing Christians and the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. They agree on Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah being menaces, but little else. Liberal Christians, libertarian Sunnis, disgruntled Shias, and most of the Druze are there, too.
Hezbollah leads the “March 8″ bloc, but is just one part of it. The Party of God is joined by the secular Shia Amal party because the two make a formidable duo in promoting Shia interests within Lebanon’s sectarian political system.
Michel Aoun’s predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement viscerally fears and loathes Saudi Arabia. And the Aounists, for now anyway, would rather forge a cynical tactical alliance with Syria, Iran, and the radical Shias than get in bed with Wahhabis and the rest of the Arab world.
The Aounists are just using Hezbollah because they think it’s expedient and convenient. “The situation in the South is finished,” one of them told me, referring to the violent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. “If it happens again, [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah will lose his case.” “We’ll extend our hand and ask them to join us,” said another. “But we can’t wait forever. If they refuse to disarm, we’ll crack the sh*t out of them.”
Hezbollah supporters themselves are all over the place ideologically. Many thrill to jihad and the destruction of Israel as the leadership does. Others believe Hezbollah’s military strength is Lebanon’s only defense against an impending Israeli invasion. They want deterrence, not war, and simply fail to understand that a disarmed Hezbollah is their best bet for peace and quiet. They are bombarded daily with hysterical propaganda on Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and in Hezbollah’s schools against the supposedly warmongering “Zionist Entity.” Others simply reward Hezbollah with votes out of gratitude for their network of hospitals, schools, and other humanitarian fronts.
On my last trip to Lebanon, several “March 14″ supporters made a convincing case that daily life in Lebanon wouldn’t change much if “March 8″ won in June. Hezbollah has the freedom to do whatever it wants even now, because Lebanon’s government has always been weak and a hair’s breadth away from irrelevance no matter who runs it. Hezbollah itself is only expected to win ten parliamentary seats out of a total of 128. That’s less than eight percent.
Geopolitically though, everything will change. Lebanon’s current “March 14″ government is an ally of the West and of Arab governments other than Syria’s. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora has repeatedly – and I think honestly – stated he wants a renewed armistice agreement with Israel. A “March 8″ government would reverse all those diplomatic efforts and push Lebanon back into, or at the very least toward, the Syria-Iran axis. War prospects with Israel would increase, and any eventual war would almost certainly turn out more destructive than the last one if the people of Lebanon willingly elect a coalition led by a jihadist party vowing war and destruction.
The Obama Administration is indicating through diplomatic jargon the U.S.’s response to a Hezbollah victory. Former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman had this to say to Congress: “The shape of the United States’ assistance programs in Lebanon will be evaluated in the context of Lebanon’s parliamentary election results and the policies formed by the new cabinet.” “It won’t surprise you to hear that I think moderation is important in the affairs of states,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Beirut recently. “We want to see a strong, independent, free and sovereign Lebanon.” Her statement may sound generic, but everyone in Lebanon knows exactly what it means. It’s an endorsement for “March 14.”
President Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to maintain the same warm relations with a Lebanon led by “March 8″ even if he wished to. Despite the president’s overtures toward leaders in Tehran, a party with “Death to America” as a slogan cannot be an ally. Hezbollah refused to meet with, of all people, former President Jimmy Carter a few months ago because he’s perceived as too ardent a “Zionist.” If Hezbollah’s leaders can’t handle Carter, they certainly won’t tolerate an American administration whose staff supported Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza a few months ago.
If Hezbollah does eke out a victory, Hassan Nasrallah will find himself in an interesting position. He’ll have more power than ever, but he’ll also have much more to lose. Many supporters of the Hezbollah-led coalition agree with “March 14″ on certain key points. The International Peace Institute produced some revealing data last summer. Eighty-two percent of Lebanese polled said they support UN Resolution 1559 that requires the disarmament of all Lebanese and Palestinian militias – including Hezbollah. Eighty-four percent said they support Resolution 1701 that bans shipments of arms to militias – including Hezbollah. Only 34 percent said they are confident Hezbollah can provide security in their neighborhood, compared with 93 percent who say the Lebanese Army can. Seventy-six percent said only the Lebanese Army should be armed, and 55 percent said Hezbollah’s very existence as an armed militia makes war with Israel likelier.
Lebanese political coalitions are ever-shifting kaleidoscopes. All internal alliances are unstable. Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend, and vice-versa. It’s impossible for anyone who votes for one or another slate of parties to be happy with everything they’re going to get. Should Nasrallah win, it would be wise of him not to blow his victory and country away by starting something stupid with Israel. But as Druze chief Walid Jumblatt said of him recently, “It is not nice to be in a bunker. Being away from reality, you will ultimately fail to grasp reality.”